Tuesday, December 16, 2008
Hints on how to hire a family law (divorce) lawyer in Harris County
Before hiring a family law (aka divorce) lawyer to represent you, you need to take a deep breath. You need to calm down. If you don't calm down, you will probably have a heart attack before your case is over. You need to objectively try to determine your specific goal(s) or objective(s) you want to accomplish. Ending a relationship is similar to a death. It is difficult and tramatic. Many people don't think clearly. Often the final result is not anything that you could have anticipated at the beginning of the process. No attorney can make all of the decisions for you. This is YOUR LIFE! You should view your attorney as your advocate and guide. You need to be actively involved in your family law case. I refuse to make the final decision for clients. Why? Because I don't want them to blame me later. Most people that hire a family law attorney are in a very stressful period and they are not thinking clearly. Gather as much of your financial and other information as possible before you go to see your lawyer. This includes tax returns and schedules, financial statements, budget documents and the like from at least the last five (5) years. The more paperwork the better. Often during a divorce, papers "disappear". It is often time consuming and expensive to replace them. I encourage clients to keep a "diary" for me to read on what is going on. I prefer that it be typed. If it was prepared for me, then attorney-client privilege attaches. However, if they pass it around, there is no privilege. Many attorneys offer a free short consultation in person or by phone. A free consultation is a chance for you to determine if you have confidence in this attorney. If you don't like the person when you first meet them -- don't hire them. Keep looking for someone that makes you feel comfortable. Do they let you finish your sentences? Do they get angry if you ask questions? Do they listen to you? How do you feel when talking to this attorney? Are you intimidated? I once considered hiring an attorney with an excellent reputation. He whispered and I could not hear him. It drove me crazy. I did not hire him. The consultation also gives ME the opportunity to determine if I want YOU as a client. Yes, I've been known to turn people away. If I believe I'm not the best attorney for them or that they are totally unrealistic, I refer them to someone else. One man had hidden a lot of money and he told me that he planned to lie on the witness stand under oath if we went to trial. I did not take him as a client. Make sure your Legal Services Agreement (aka "legal contract") is in writing, that you understand it BEFORE you sign it, and that you understand how you will pay your bill. You should receive a copy of the Legal Services Agreement. My LSA is 3 pages long and written in plain English. I've seen some LSA that are 8-10 pages and they seemed very intimidating. If the attorney won't explain it to you if you have questions, then I'd look elsewhere. I don't "negotiate" my LSA. One lady tried to re-write my LSA. I told her to look elsewhere for an attorney. If it is a "flat-rate" case, find out what is included in a flat-rate case. Often a person ends up paying more money when they try to do it the cheapest way. Remember, you get what you pay for. If this cheap attorney does not work out, plan on paying a lot more to have an experienced attorney "fix" the case! Yes, I often get people calling me back 6-9 months later after they hired the "cheap" attorney and they end up paying me a lot more than my first quote to fix the mess the "cheap" attorney made. Be aware that in family law cases the attorneys are NOT allowed to take a percentage of what is recovered for you in a divorce case, so expect to pay by the hour. We don't do "contigency" cases in family law. It's not allowed in the State of Texas. Prices vary dramatically. Board certified attorneys fees are much higher than non-board certified attorneys. If you make $20,000/year, you are not going to be able to afford to pay an attorney $500 per hour. Be realistic, shop around. I often get referrals from the opposing party in a divorce. I think that is a very high compliment! A newly licensed attorney should charge less than someone with more experience. You can visit the State Bar of Texas website and determine when an attorney was licensed to practice law within the State of Texas. A newly licensed attorney should be charging under $250 per hour. After 17 years of experience, my highest hourly rate is $250 per hour. For mediations, I cut my rate to $150 an hour voluntarily in order to encourage mediation. Some attorneys charge less if you talk to their paralegal or legal secretary. Be sure to find out who you will be talking to when you call the office. If you don't like the paralegal or secretary, then you need to plan on always talking to your attorney and paying for his/her time. Write out your questions, then make an appointment with the lawyer and take notes about what you're told. If there are billing questions, talk to the person who handles the billing. If you don't understand the first statement you receive, call the office. Most attorneys charge for their time -- emails, phone calls, office visits, research, court time, etc. Some attorneys charge for parking at the courthouse, photocopies, faxing, postage, deliveries, certified mail, etc. This can add up. Be sure to understand how you are going to be charged for these non-legal services. Also, some attorneys charge a minimum for each court appearance -- even if they only appear in the courtroom for 5 minutes you might be billed for 2-4 hours of their time. This adds up quickly -- so ask if there is a MINIMUM court appearance fee! I normally charge an hour for a short court appearance. Some attorneys can do 3 court appearances in one hour in one morning yet charge their clients for 6 hours of work! If you don't understand something, ask. And if you have a problem with the way your lawyer is handling your case, also ask. Don't allow the issue to fester. If you don't like the attorney, fire the attorney in writing and get the attorney to withdraw as your attorney of record. The court file is a public document and you can go to the courthouse and review your file. Your lawyer should keep you reasonably informed about the status of your case by sending you copies of what goes out of the office. Remember that calls just to find out what's going on can get expensive. Many attorneys are in court all day or in mediation all day. Don't expect to receive a call back immediately! Attorneys are not allowed to have their cell phones on in any courtroom. I had one client that demanded I call back immediately when I got the call -- she wasn't very happy when I checked my messages after an evening mediation and called her back after 11 pm that night! Don't second-guess your lawyer based on the advice of friends and family. I have fired clients for "shopping" advice. If you don't have confidence in your attorney -- get a new one! Remember that your lawyer works for you. After you have been fully informed and have reviewed your options, you and your lawyer should decide upon a course of action suitable to your situation. Don't be surprised if your case takes time to get resolved. Although everyone is in a hurry to complete his/her case, you will have no control over scheduling issues that can keep your case in limbo for a long time. Anticipate going to mediation. It's a local rule in Harris County that most cases must to go mediation before trial. Most cases settle at mediation. I estimate that most family law cases set at or before mediation. Only approximately 10% of all cases filed go to trial. If you want a jury trial, plan on spending at least $25,000 and anticipate to your case going on for over a year. If your lawyer promises or guarantees you a result, I would look for another attorney. No family law attorney should guarantee or promise a certain result. You expect to get paid for the work you do. Your plumber expects to get paid. So do I. I bill fairly at a reasonable rate. But I don't work for free. I do plenty of pro bono legal services. I offer payment plans. I work hard for my clients. In fact, I get angry when I care more about a case than the client.