INTERVIEWING YOUR PROSPECTIVE LAWYER
Your decision to hire a lawyer should not be done on a whim. Instead, it is essential that you do your homework to ensure that your lawyer will best serve your needs. Think of your lawyer as more than someone who happens to get you divorced. Your divorce lawyer will become the person you call as soon as a crisis arises involving your spouse, your children, your babysitter, your extended family, and beyond. If you are shopping for a car, you wouldn’t walk into the first dealer you happen to pass by, walk in, and immediately purchase a car without any further research. Instead, you may shop around, read reviews of the car, read reviews of the service that the dealership provides, and find out as much information as possible to guarantee that the purchase and use of the car far into the future will run as smoothly as possible.
You should treat the process of hiring a divorce lawyer in much the same way. Do your homework. While there may be countless lawyers in New York who claim to practice divorce and family law, one lawyer’s claim is not equal to another’s. First, find out how long that lawyer has been practicing. A well-experienced divorce lawyer should be practicing for at least twenty years. Significant experience means that your divorce lawyer is well versed in the law and the customs of the Courts. Hiring a lawyer who is new to the field means that his/her grasp on how things are actually accomplished is thin at best.
It is important to determine how much of your lawyer’s practice is actually devoted to divorce and family law. While a firm may claim that it practices divorce law, it may only have one junior associate handling a very small number of divorce cases. Again, under this arrangement, you are less likely to obtain the best outcome, as you want to hire someone who is familiar with the law and the Courts and who can provide the best insight into achieving the optimal outcome for you and your family. Upon meeting your lawyer at the initial consultation, you should determine who will be handling your case exactly and the amount of experience that lawyer has.
Before setting a consultation with an attorney, you should always do your homework. Go online and “Google” that attorney. See if the attorney has a website. Is the website well maintained with ample information about his/her practice? Is the website only an advertisement, or does it serve to actually educate its viewers and assist them in the divorce process? A good attorney takes pride in any product with his/her name, including the firm’s website. Competent attorneys often run blogs, providing their clients and prospective clients with updated information regarding the latest developments in the law. Take the time to go through an attorney’s website, as a well maintained website will educate you and give you insight into the type of lawyer you may be hiring.
Aside from reading the firm’s website, you should always read any reviews about the attorney on websites such as Yelp.com or Citysearch.com. These reviews are written by real people who have dealt with the attorney and will provide you insight into other people’s experiences. Be careful to spot fake reviews, as many firms will post comments themselves. A large number of reviews in a very short period of time is often indicative of fake reviews. An attorney with significant positive feedback from past clients should give you assurance that the attorney has experience working with diverse clientele and is familiar with the inner workings of the Court system. While no positive review can guarantee results in your case, you are more likely to succeed with an attorney who has successfully helped out others before you.
While there are general rules that exist across the Courts of the State of New York, differing rules exist between the Counties and often even between Judges within the same County. Having a lawyer on your side who is familiar with that County and that Judge can often be extremely helpful in expediting your divorce, as that lawyer will be more familiar with the Court rules. Courts often have very specific rules about the proper ways to file motions. Some Courts demand that a lawyer conduct a conference call with the Court before instituting any motion practice, while other Courts expect the lawyer to simply file a motion before hearing oral arguments. Without an experienced lawyer in that particular Court, you may often find yourself frustrated with the lack of progress in your case and with larger than necessary legal bills.
Often, law firms have a younger associate and a more senior associate handling your case. It is important to inquire as to how your case will be handled. A junior associate can be beneficial to your case and may handle the day-to-day problems that arise over the course of your case. However, you must ensure that a more senior lawyer is handling the overall strategy and directing the junior associate should matters arise that require a more experienced hand.
Your initial call to a lawyer’s office will be telling, and you should take careful note on how you are handled. Your first thought should be to question whether an answering service is helping you or whether the person directing you is actually support staff employed directly by the lawyer. An answering service means that your lawyer does not employ someone who has direct knowledge of your case and who can assist you if your lawyer is in Court or with another client.
Your lawyer’s support staff is key to a successful divorce and family law case. A lawyer without a support staff, including paralegals, secretaries, and other attorneys, will often leave you feeling as though your lawyer is too busy to handle your case. The support staff is there to answer questions when your lawyer is in Court or with another client or to assist the lawyer in the preparation of the large number of documents that must be provided to the Court or opposing counsel. A lawyer without a staff cannot effectively handle a large volume law practice. As a result, you may feel as though your lawyer is never available to speak on the phone or to take a meeting as issues arise over the course of your case. Divorce and family law cases never proceed along a straight line. Inevitably, there will be unforeseen difficulties. Your lawyer may be unavailable due to the rigors of practicing law; having others within your lawyer’s office who can sort through phone calls and prioritize the emergencies will make your experience significantly smoother.
When you first call a lawyer, it may often be the case that he/she is unavailable to speak, as that lawyer may be with a client, in Court, or already on the phone. After noting whether an answering service or an actual employee is handling your inquiry, it is customary to leave a message for the attorney to call you back. A well trained staff should ask a few questions to ensure that the attorney possibly could help you in the future. For instance, you should expect to be asked where you live, particularly in what county, and what type of case you have. A well trained staff should know to ask the right questions.
Once you have left a message, you should note how long it takes for the lawyer to return your call. While it may be unreasonable to expect an immediate phone call response, a responsible lawyer should return your phone call within twenty four hours. If the lawyer does not return your phone call within this time, it likely means he is too busy to respond or that he will not be responsive in the future, should you decide to retain him/her. It goes without saying that you should not hire a lawyer overwhelmed to the extent that he/she is unable to reach out to prospective new clients. This is a harbinger that your client will be unable to devote the time and attention you should expect.
Upon speaking with a lawyer over the phone, the proceeding step is to set a time to meet with the lawyer for a consultation. Some lawyers may promise free consultations in person. Free often sounds too good to be true, and that is generally the case. A free consultation means that the lawyer will sit down with you for a very brief meeting, in which you may have the opportunity, at best, to lay out some of the facts of your case. However, that lawyer will spend very little time with you and will be unwilling to give you a real direction and his/her honest opinion about how your case should proceed. In essence, you get what you pay for. A lawyer who charges a consultation fee will actually spend time with you, listening to the facts of your case. As a result, that lawyer can actually provide realistic advice tailored to the needs of you and your family.
Many lawyers will simply “yes” a client to death, providing unrealistic assurances. A good lawyer should provide a client with accurate expectations, such that the client is aware of the probabilities of certain outcomes and the likelihood that the client will achieve the goals set out at the initial consultation. Lawyers know the law, and the clients do not. A lawyer who allows the client to purely dictate the direction of the case, without at least tempering expectations based on the actual law of the State of New York, only sets the client up for disappointment. If your lawyer agrees with whatever you say without fail, it may be time to consider whether your lawyer is actually providing you with realistic advice and accurate expectations.
You should also question the time table your lawyer provides you. If a lawyer guarantees he/she can get you divorced within a time frame that seems exceptionally fast or slow, it may be time to speak with another lawyer to ensure that your lawyer is handling your case properly. For example, the most efficient county for an uncontested divorce is currently New York County. At the time of this writing, New York County Supreme Court takes approximately three to four months to process an uncontested divorce once it has been fully submitted to the Court. Other Counties within the City of New York may take many more months. Your lawyer should advise you of the differing time frames between the Counties and proceed accordingly to process your divorce. On the other hand, contested divorces typically extend for a much longer period of time, as you appear before a Judge as opposed to proceeding with the divorce solely on paperwork.
You should also inquire how your attorney best communicates with clients. Attorneys spend a significant part of each day either in Court or in meetings with clients. As a result, attorneys are often unavailable by phone when a crisis arises. You should ensure that your divorce lawyer has a Blackberry or other smart-phone device and answers e-mails in a prompt fashion. Your divorce lawyer should always be available. Your life never rests, and a crisis can occur at any time. It is essential that, even if your lawyer is busy, you have a means to keep your attorney informed and that he/she actually keeps abreast of what occurs.
Your choice in lawyers may significantly affect the outcome of your case. Make sure to do your homework and research and choose wisely.
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