Working with a Family Lawyer

What traits should I look for when choosing a divorce lawyer?

Choosing your lawyer is probably the most important decision you will make in your divorce process. So make sure you find somebody who will smooth the road ahead, not make it more rough than it already is. Interview several lawyers – at least three – before you make a final decision, but at the same time, don't be afraid to listen to your gut feelings.

If possible, get a divorce lawyer with lots of experience in both litigation and negotiation. He or she will be able to anticipate pitfalls that may come up in your case and avoid them. You also want a lawyer who will be completely honest with you about your case. A lawyer who tries to sell you on how much he can win for you will only set you up for disappointment, but one who lets you know the strengths and weaknesses of your case upfront will be far more trustworthy. You also should make sure that your lawyer is accessible: You should be able to reach him or her in an emergency, and he or she must answer phone calls and e-mails. Communication is an important factor: Your lawyer must be willing and able to provide necessary information and answer all your questions, as well as inform you of your legal rights – and in turn, you should feel comfortable enough with him or her to disclose all important information about your case.

Also make sure to ask prospective lawyers about their fees, their estimation of the total cost and time spent on your case, what percentage of their cases go to trial, and whether they practice family law exclusively. Ask if they've handled cases like yours before; if so, it's an advantage. Most importantly, the lawyer must understand your needs, your best interests, what you hope to get out of your divorce – and what you can realistically expect.
Keep in mind that you're the one who's employing the lawyer, not the other way around. You're the boss: It's your final decision who will work for you, so choose carefully.

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My spouse and I were considering having one lawyer represent both of us to save time and money. Is this a good idea?

Even if you and your spouse are divorcing amicably, you each need to retain separate counsel because you are still at odds in terms of property distribution and custody. A far better solution for more friendly, mutual divorces is mediation or collaborative law. In the former, both spouses work together under a mediator's supervision to come up with a satisfactory divorce agreement. In the latter, both spouses hire collaborative lawyers who work together to devise a divorce agreement that satisfies both parties. Both of these alternatives usually cost less time and money than adversarial divorces.

The bottom line is that you don't want your lawyer's services to you to be compromised by his duties to your spouse. Your lawyer is working to get the best outcome for you; he or she can't if there is a loyalty conflict.

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Do I have to tell my lawyer everything – even details I consider private?

Divorce is a deeply personal affair as well as a legal one, so it's perfectly understandable that you might be reluctant to share certain information about your marriage with your lawyer. However, the better informed your lawyer is about your case, the better able he or she is to represent you. Remember that your lawyer is ethically obliged to keep all correspondence with you confidential. You should feel free to reveal personal, private facts that may have a bearing on your case. This doesn't mean you have to disclose "everything," but certain items of information that may seem unimportant or irrelevant may turn out to be otherwise as the case unfolds.

If your lawyer doesn't have the whole story with regard to your case, there's the danger that the other party could leak out information that could be damaging to your side. If it looks as if you have hidden the information from your lawyer, or as if both of you have hidden it from the court, this could severely damage your credibility. There's also the danger of your lawyer inadvertently making untrue statements that get contradicted by the other party's evidence in court. If your lawyer is armed with the full truth from the start, these pitfalls can be avoided.

It is never a good idea to deliberately misrepresent the facts to your lawyer or the court. If caught lying under oath, you could be charged with perjury – particularly if you were attempting to conceal assets or other information vital to the case. At best, you will diminish your credibility with the judge, make a fool of your lawyer, and provide the other party with an obvious advantage. It's better to reveal all relevant information right from the start and allow your lawyer to work from that.

Again, the more knowledge your lawyer has, the more prepared he or she is to represent you – and to overcome unexpected pitfalls or surprises that may turn up.

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How can I keep my legal costs down during my divorce?

The cost of contested divorce proceedings in court is high. Hourly rates for divorce lawyers range from $175 to $350 per hour. The duration of a typical contested divorce in court may be six-12 months. Clients are often left with legal bills they cannot afford to pay.

There are alternatives. Court proceedings for a divorce should be used as a last resort, only after efforts to settle by other means are tried and fail. Alternate Dispute Resolution (ADR) is becoming more the norm today. ADR allows parties to resolve their matrimonial disputes themselves without the need to have a judge decide important issues for them and their family. ADR methods include mediating family disputes with a trained mediator and/or lawyer and collaborative family law. Collaborative family lawyers work together with clients to resolve all issues in dispute in an informal, out-of-court setting. Clients who can resolve their family-law disputes through ADR often express more satisfaction with the outcome and the cost than clients involved in contested court proceedings.

If a divorce has to go to court, there are ways to keep the cost down. Family-law clients should provide full financial disclosure so that lengthy and expensive examinations of that client's financial statement are not required. In addition, clients involved in contested proceedings should seriously consider all reasonable offers to settle made by the other side in order to avoid the financial and emotional costs of proceeding to a contested trial.

**This faq was first published in the Ontario Divorce Magazine and are reprinted here with their full permission.

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What if I don't agree with my lawyer's bill? Can I have it lowered?

You can object to an amount of fees charged by your lawyer if you feel it is too high, or if there are charges that you feel are not warranted or did not expect. However, it is important to discuss the billing problem with your lawyer (or the billing department) right away. In fact, you can save yourself the trouble of dealing with a too-high legal bill by being clear right from the start on the lawyer's billing process.

Upon first hiring your lawyer, make sure he or she explains clearly how you will be billed and what he estimates the full cost will be. Also keep in mind that the total amount will increase with every court appearance and every meeting with the lawyer. This way, you should have a good idea of what to expect at billing time. An official written fee contract helps to make things clear as well. If keeping costs down is an issue, you can help do that yourself by using your lawyer's time economically – such as only meeting with him/her when absolutely needed and providing information and documents right away.

If you receive a bill that's more than you expected, look it over carefully. Keep in mind all the services your lawyer performed for you and when, and compare it to the info on the bill. Look at the specific items you were charged for. If you feel there has been a mistake or a misunderstanding, discuss this with your lawyer face-to-face. (Make sure, of course, that you will not be billed for this meeting.) If there has been a mistake, your lawyer should be willing to reduce the bill immediately. If he or she doesn't, you may challenge the bill in court, but keep in mind this means hiring another lawyer and paying additional legal fees.

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I have a question about my divorce case, but my lawyer's out of town. Can I ask my spouse's lawyer?

This is never a good idea. The most obvious reason is simply that you and your spouse are on opposing sides of the case. Even if you're having a relatively amicable divorce, you and your spouse still have conflicting interests that need to be settled. So your spouse's lawyer is in no position to help you; he or she is required to be loyal only to your spouse. Lawyers have an ethical, professional duty not to speak with opposing lawyer's clients during a case.

If you phone your spouse's lawyer, he or she will most likely respond, "I'm not permitted to speak with you." However, there's the danger that you may inadvertently give the lawyer clues as to your priorities and concerns in the case. The last thing you want is to give the other side any advantage over you.

If your lawyer is out of town but you feel that your question is urgent, leave a message at his or her office. Most lawyers check messages regularly even when away from the office and return calls as soon as possible. If yours doesn't, however, ask another lawyer in the firm or an associate of your lawyer. A clerk or paralegal may also be able to help you, depending on the question. If no one else in the law firm can help you, then your best bet is to contact a lawyer outside the case for a neutral answer or opinion. Many lawyers offer free initial consultations.

Before you try these routes, of course, be sure that your question really is urgent. If it can wait until your lawyer gets back, be patient: Your lawyer is still the best person to answer it, as he or she is the most familiar with the details of your case.

If your lawyer is frequently unavailable and unresponsive to your questions and concerns, then it may be time to get a new lawyer. But never ask your spouse's lawyer for advice – at best, it achieves nothing; at worst, you're revealing too much information to the other side and harming your chances for a fair outcome.

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