There are areas of law in which choosing an attorney is simply a matter of finding someone qualified for the task at hand. It goes without saying that, in every case, your attorney must be competent. The more unusual or difficult the issues, the more expertise will be required. But when you’re dealing with divorce, legal separation, parentage, child support or any other family law matter, competence alone is not enough.
Trust and Rapport
These cases tend to be highly charged. As a result, you are likely, at times, to lose objectivity. When that happens, your attorney’s job is to be a voice of reason. For example, when a settlement offer that’s on the table is better than anything you’re likely to receive if the case proceeds to court, you deserve to be advised of this reality. You have the right to ignore your attorney’s recommendations and roll the dice, but such choices should always be grounded in a sound understand of risk. Another example of losing objectivity occurs when an attorney must remind the client that the cost of trying the case will exceed the value of property in dispute and thus only the attorneys will gain through litigation.
If you lose sight of what’s in your own best interest, it’s your attorney’s responsibility to perform the difficult task of telling you what you need to know, even if it’s not what you want to hear. This is one of the hardest aspects of being an attorney, but a good lawyer will do his or her best at all times to help clients navigate their cases wisely.
On those occasions, I care far less about what my client believes in the moment than in what he or she is likely to think years from now, when looking back on the case with calmness and objectivity. The greater your rapport with your attorney, the easier it will be to hear and consider the advice offered.
The Law Firm
It’s important to be comfortable with the way your attorney’s law firm operates. Ask questions, such as who will be handling the details of your case, how easy or difficult it will be to reach your attorney if problems arise, and what will happen on those occasions when no one is available to take your call. Whatever your question, it deserves to be voiced and, in turn, addressed with a thoughtful response. The best attorney-client relationships are built on honest and straightforward communication.
The Attorney’s Skills and Approach
Make sure you understand and feel comfortable with your attorney’s view of the case. The practice of law is as much art as science. Competent lawyers can disagree about how best to handle a case and you may prefer a particular approach.
While attorneys can legitimately disagree on the right approach for your case, in my opinion it’s important for lawyers to understand the value (and proper application) of the full range of options. Otherwise, one will (by necessity) steer toward those that are known and understood, oblivious to potentially favorable alternatives.
Some cases are best resolved in Mediation, through Collaborative Divorce, or through other forms of negotiation. Others are best litigated. The attorney’s skills must be appropriate to the method chosen. The best litigator in Bellingham may be a terrible mediator. The best mediator or collaborative attorney might not be well suited to litigation. Some attorneys are expert in issues pertaining to children; others are strongest when dealing with complex finances or locating hidden assets.
I believe an attorney should be, first and foremost, a problem solver. Sometimes litigation is necessary. If that’s true of your case, it’s best to face that reality and plan accordingly. But conflict is often best resolved through negotiation. When people are willing and able to act in good faith, each can choose the areas in which to compromise. Working together, they can find win-win solutions to complex and challenging issues.
If your case goes to court, you lose control. A judge will decide what’s best for your children and what’s just and fair to you. Thus, some of the most important decisions of your life will be made by a stranger.
Although judges make sincere efforts to do what’s best for the people before them, they must base their decisions on the limited information presented. They don’t have time to get to know you or your children in any meaningful way. That’s why I recommend resolving issues through negotiations to the extent mutually beneficial agreements can be reached, and letting the court rule only on those remaining issues where negotiation does not lead to a high quality, mutually agreeable result.
If negotiation will not yield high quality parenting orders and/or a fair resolution of property and spousal maintenance, an attorney can provide an opinion as to whether the issues at stake justify the risks and expense of litigation. Then you can decide whether to accept the best settlement available or invest the funds necessary to take your case to court.
As hard as it is to face life-changing, highly charged legal challenges, the results will be better and the process less painful if you choose your lawyer carefully. Feel free to interview several. The investment made up front will pay for itself many times over when you find an attorney well suited to you and your case.