Finding The Right Phoenix Family Divorce Attorney
(This article first appeared in the December, 2002 issue of Arizona Child magazine. Copyright © 2002 by Louis Lombardo.)
It is well known that divorce can be one of the most stressful events in a person’s life. Newspapers routinely print statistics on the subject, and most of us have witnessed the emotional and financial impact a divorce can have on family and friends. What many people do not realize, however, is that having the right family law attorney can help minimize the stress and facilitate the transition to the next stage of one’s life.
Finding a family law attorney is easy. Open up the yellow pages or search the internet and dozens are at your disposal. Determining which attorney is right for you, however, is not so simple. A little effort spent before hiring a lawyer will help ensure that yours will be competent, knowledgeable and sympathetic to your situation.
The first step to locating the right family law attorney is to speak with family or friends who have been through a divorce (or custody or support case). Former clients are usually the best source of information. Given the sensitive nature of family law cases, family law attorneys tend to develop a closer relationship with their clients than other types of attorneys. Your friends will know if their former attorney is worth a visit.
If a referral from a friend is not an option, make a list of attorneys who practice in your area. Call each of their offices and ask to speak with them. If the receptionist transfers you to anyone other than the lawyer, you probably will not have much personal communication with that lawyer after you hire him or her. If the prospective attorney agrees to speak with you, spend some time speaking with the lawyer. Do not focus too much on the specifics of your case. Try to learn a little about the lawyer’s personality instead. Is he or she polite and professional? Does the lawyer show an interest in your case and a willingness to help? You probably will be dealing with this person for several months if not longer, so make sure you feel comfortable communicating with him or her.
Pay close attention to what the attorney says during your conversation. Be skeptical of any attorney that promises you a certain outcome for your case. A good attorney knows what a judge is likely to say or do, but a good attorney also knows that judges are as different as one person from the next, and there is no guarantee that a judge will rule a particular way. If an attorney promises you that you will win your case based on a single phone call, keep looking.
Find out how long the attorney has practiced family law. An attorney with at least three or four years of experience is more likely to have helped people with problems similar to yours, and can offer more options to settle your case fairly without the need for a trial. If trial is unavoidable, a more experienced attorney will know how to prepare your case for the best likelihood of success.
Attorneys are licensed professionals, and the Arizona State Bar Association is their governing body. Call the Bar Association and ask if your prospective attorney has had any complaints filed against him or her. Because of the emotional nature of family law, complaints are not uncommon. Steer clear of an attorney who has had numerous complaints, however, particularly if those complaints were made recently or if the lawyer was disciplined following the complaint.
When you have found a few lawyers who seem to fit your criteria, arrange to meet with them at their offices. Ask if there is a fee for the initial consultation when you make your appointment. Have a list of questions ready for the prospective lawyer to address when you meet. You should expect to spend anywhere from thirty minutes to an hour speaking with the lawyer during this initial conversation, depending on the complexity of your case. Ask the lawyer how long you should expect to wait before your case is completed. Most family law cases take about six months to complete, but nine months to a year is not unusual if the case is contested. Find out what is the typical outcome for a case like yours. A good family law attorney can tell you how the Court is likely to divide your assets and debts, whether you can expect to pay or receive child support or spousal maintenance, who will have custody of the children, and so forth. Remember not to expect promises from the lawyer. As your case progresses and the lawyer learns more information about your case, he or she will be able to give you a better understanding of what is likely to happen in your case. If your working on a limited budget, ask the attorney if there is anything you can do to keep the costs down. Many attorneys will suggest ways that the client can help gather information and avoid the need for additional costs.
You can learn a lot about the prospective lawyer just sitting in his waiting room. Pay attention to the office environment during this visit. Is the office clean and tidy, or are papers piled in every corner? Is the staff courteous and attentive, or do you feel ignored? These subtle factors may reflect the lawyer’s attitude toward his clients. Do not be concerned about the size of the law firm. Many family law attorneys practice alone or in small groups, and good attorneys can be found in offices of any size.
Discuss the attorney’s fees and costs in detail before signing a retainer agreement, and make sure you understand exactly how the lawyer charges for his services. Family law attorneys usually charge a “retainer fee” up front before they will begin working on your behalf. This fee usually averages around three or four thousand dollars, although the costs can vary either way depending on the difficulty of your case and the experience of the lawyer. This fee, however, is not necessarily the total amount you will spend on your lawyer. Most family law attorneys bill based on the hour, and the lawyer deducts the amount he or she earns each month from the retainer fee. The retainer fee may not cover all of the work that your lawyer has to do to complete your case, so find out how much the attorney charges per hour and whether you can expect to receive an itemized statement on a regular basis showing how the retainer fee is being used. Ask the attorney about payment for any services not covered by the retainer fee. Be skeptical of any attorney that does not normally give an accounting of how your money is being spent.
Remember, there are many family law attorneys out there, not all of whom are right for you. Spend a little effort before you spend your money, and you can be confident that you have the right family law attorney at your side.
Louis Lombardo was admitted to the Arizona State Bar Association in 1995 and has practiced primarily in the area of family law for more than seven years. Mr. Lombardo attended the University of Missouri-Columbia (B.A. 1988, M.A. 1991) and Arizona State University College of Law (J.D. 1995). His achievements include membership in Phi Beta Kappa and former appointment as an editor of the Arizona State Law Journal.