Divorce is a huge step, and how it's handled can have lasting impacts on the rest of your life. No matter which side you're on, it's wise to seek experienced legal representation. If you've never been divorced before, the process may feel scary and uncomfortable, so before hiring a divorce attorney, you should do your research to ensure you're getting the best for your situation. For instance, if you or your soon-to-be-ex are in the military, make sure that you don't hire a divorce attorney with no experience in military divorce. In other words, you need a divorce attorney who specializes in what makes your life unique to you.
Ask the questions you need to ask to make sure an attorney can handle your particular divorce case. If the process of hiring a divorce attorney is overwhelming and a bit frightening at this point, consider this list of 26 questions your go-to guide.
How many divorce cases have you handled?
Hiring a divorce attorney is kind of like choosing a doctor to perform surgery: You don't want to hire someone who's never done this before. Getting a divorce is stressful enough, and the last thing you'll want to have to do on top of dealing with the emotional and logistical repercussions is checking your lawyer's work over their shoulder to make sure they are handling everything correctly. After all, you're the client.
How many of those cases were you able to settle out of court?
Ideally, you want to keep your divorce out of the courts to avoid added drama and a prolonged agreement. Settling out of court is essentially reaching a compromise, so finding yourself a talented divorce lawyer who's settled out of court a lot is a good sign to look for.
Do you practice collaborative divorce?
Similar to settling out of court, a collaborative divorce puts the "let's fight!" mentality away so that you and your spouse can reach a reasonable agreement in a non-aggressive way. It's a type of problem-solving that keeps the peace during a divorce. A collaborative divorce could end with you and your ex on good enough terms to be friendly with one another.
While keeping your divorce out of the courts may sound ideal, you may need to take it to trial. If your spouse is a bully or has a combative personality, things may get out of hand, and for that reason, the courts could keep him or her in check.
Do you know my spouse?
If your lawyer is associated with your spouse, that could be a big problem regardless of how your attorney feels about him or her. Our own personal feelings or knowledge of another person tends to get in the way of our ability to perform without bias, so definitely don't hire someone who has any prior connection to your spouse.
Do you know my spouse’s attorney?
Whether or not your lawyer knows your spouse's lawyer may matter to you less than if your lawyer knows your spouse, but it's still something to take into consideration. If they were in one seminar together during their first year of law school, feel free to proceed with your lawyer, but if they were roommates in law school, you might want to consider hiring someone else.
Are you familiar with local family court judges?
Before enrolling in a college class, you probably asked a few other students what the professor is like, how they grade, and what their stance of tardiness is, etc. Hiring a lawyer is similar because, before you do so, you want to make sure they know your local judges' reputations and directions in which they tend to rule. If the judge assigned to your case tends to be lenient with custody and you're seeking sole custody, you'll want your lawyer to be aware of this so that she can plan a strong strategy.
Do you believe it is better to mediate and negotiate than go to trial?
The most important element when it comes to hiring a divorce lawyer is that you see eye-to-eye. If you want to mediate and negotiate, but your lawyer is dead-set on going to trial, that disagreement could impact your case's success.
Do you have experience negotiating financial support or settlements?
For example, child or spousal support, large financial settlements, or business valuation are all bound to come up in any divorce case involving children or businesses, so you want to make sure your lawyer knows what they are doing.
Will you or another attorney from the firm be handling my case?
You hire a specific attorney because you agree with their way of doing things, so the last thing you want is for your case to be handed off to other lawyers in the firm.
Before you hire someone, make sure that they will be with you from start to finish.
Can I meet anyone else who will be involved in handling my case?
If your case is complicated and needs to be looked after and worked on by multiple people, make sure you get to meet anyone who will be involved for the same reason you met with your main attorney. Your future is in their hands, in a way, so being acquainted with everyone who will be working on your case is definitely essential.
Are you available via phone or email?
Divorces are not a one-and-done type of situation, so if something urgent comes up and you don't feel like you can wait until your next scheduled appointment to share it with your attorney, you will want to be able to connect with him or her on the phone or by email. Another question to ask is whether or not you'll be billed for this communication.
Do you have a heavy case load?
If your lawyer is juggling a lot of different cases, they may not have the time to be as devoted to yours as they should. Your divorce is hugely important, so make sure your lawyer has the time to give it the attention it deserves before signing anything.
Will I receive copies of documents filed with the court?
We've all heard the phrase "on the record," which is critical in any legal battles because you may need to refer to a document or conversation for your case. If you think it will be important, make sure that all communication with your spouse's attorney and any other documents related to your case will end up in your hands if you need.
Will I be kept informed of all developments in my case?
You can decide how involved you want to be when it comes to your divorce proceedings. Some people may wish to be informed of every single developing detail, while others prefer to be kept in the loop on only the bigger things. If you find yourself in the former category, make sure your lawyer will be available and willing to share information with you.
Will you ask my opinion before planning a strategy?
Similar to being informed of any developments in your case, whether or not you want to be briefed on your lawyer's strategy is completely up to you. Just be sure that you and your attorney are on the same page before you hand over the retainer.
What are your personal feelings about joint custody versus sole custody?
Some people aren't entirely sure how they feel about huge, life-impacting decisions like joint versus sole custody of their children, so having an expert weigh-in can help them make a decision. After all, the lawyers have done this more than you have, so they could impart some useful information on what goes into custody agreements and which type of arrangement may be best for you and your children.
What is your retainer fee?
Your lawyer will probably volunteer this information without you having to ask because they want to be sure you can afford their services before they put too much effort into your case. However, just in case, get this question out of the way early on.
What is your hourly billing rate?
Like tutors and therapists, most lawyers charge by the hour, so make sure you know what you're getting into financially before signing anything. You may be able to comfortably pay for the retainer fee, but not the hourly rate, so make sure you ask for a total cost breakdown.
Do any fees I pay include the services of any other associates?
If your primary lawyer isn't the only attorney working on your case, you may also be paying for other associates' time. While this is quite common, knowing what you're paying for may ease your mind a bit.
If my case goes to divorce court, will there be extra fees?
Every firm has different policies when it comes to going to court. It's not uncommon for extra fees to be tacked on if your case does go to court.
Will I sign a contract outlining the fee arrangement?
Everyone has their own feelings about signing a fee arrangement contract, but we tend to think it's a good idea. If you hired a good lawyer, he or she likely wouldn't be trying to squeeze you for every penny you have, but just in case, making sure every dollar you spend is accounted for is always a smart move. A fee arrangement essentially means that your lawyer won't start charging you for additional services once you hand over a retainer and sign a contract with him or her.
Will I be sent itemized bills?
Similar to checks at a restaurant, itemized bills outline exactly what you're paying for. Whether or not you want one of these is completely up to you.
Will I be updated on how the retainer fee is used and when it is used up?
This is definitely something you should discuss with your lawyer before hiring them because while some attorneys look at a retainer like a deposit, others will tack on another retainer if you use your original up before the case is closed. This doesn't matter to some people, but if it does to you, be sure to bring it up early.
Will you petition the court for my spouse to pay my attorney fees?
If you are financially dependent on your soon-to-be-ex, you may want to consider finding a lawyer who will petition the court for your spouse to pay for their services. This essentially means you have a fair trial or collaborative divorce.
How much do you charge for letters and phone calls to my spouse’s attorney or me?
The hourly rate is common among lawyers because you're paying for their time, and some days may be exceedingly busier than others. It's good to know whether or not you'll be paying for everything on which your lawyer is spending time.
Will there be other costs?
Hidden costs are truly the worst, so make sure to ask your lawyer about every possible fee you may incur, including court filing fees and process server fees. While some lawyers include these costs in their general fees, others ask you to pay them separately.