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I busted a mirror and got seven years bad luck, but my lawyer thinks he can get me five. — Steven Wright
Why hire a lawyer at all?
Could you handle your own case and keep the money you would have paid? Maybe. Maybe not. People hire lawyers for the same reason that you would hire a roofer when you discover a leak. Technically, there is nothing stopping you from climbing the ladder yourself with a handful of shingles and a box of nails, but most people would rather get help from the person who knows the job and has been doing it for years. Case preparation begins long before you see the inside of a courtroom, and a skilled lawyer can do much more than marshal evidence and stand tall for you in front of the judge; he can offer you not only options you might otherwise have missed, but also ongoing guidance to help you maximize the potential of your situation from the very beginning. A lawyer also has no emotional involvement in your situation, guaranteeing a cool, objective and educated head in your corner at all times.
Throw away your Yellow Pages.
You probably already figured this one out for yourself. For all the money that people still spend on print advertising, it seems to me that overall it is a dead advertising form to find anything at all. An eye-catching ad is no longer enough, whether you are looking for a good lawyer or a good used car. People want to know more about a family lawyer than that he can afford the cost of a print advertisement.
Do your research.
When you look for a used car, you want to know about not just the model, but also the individual vehicle: its mileage, its condition, and its repair history. You want to get behind the wheel and learn something about how it handles on the road during ordinary conditions, and to get an idea of how responsive it will be when things get dicey. You certainly don’t want to be left broken down on the roadside! Since a divorce lawyer’s services can cost you anything from a few hundred dollars (for a simple matter) to the cost of that used car (if your case becomes very contentious), shouldn’t you be just as thorough before you buy?
Word of mouth.
If you don’t already know a good Pennsylvania family law attorney, there is no substitute for a personal referral to find a lawyer. You’re off to an excellent start if someone can tell you, “Attorney __________ handled my divorce and child custody case, and he won’t steer you wrong.” Talk to the lawyer yourself and make your own evaluation, of course, but in a field where the professional license carried by the best lawyer in town is just the same as the license carried by the worst, there is nothing like a good recommendation from a dependable source to get you started on the right path. Even if you don’t know someone who knows someone… maybe you know someone who knows someone who knows someone. These days, asking around can be as simple as posting a Facebook status. Meanwhile…
Look for a lawyer on the Web.
More and more, it seems that if an attorney doesn’t have a good Internet presence he might as well not exist. The Web offers you a chance to see beyond what a divorce lawyer’s advertising firm wants you to know. You can learn in advance what the lawyer has to say (and to say for himself), and what kind of useful information he can offer you, before you even hire him. Professional family law blogs such as this one, web-based informative articles, client reviews, and other convenient online resources allow you to assemble a deeper picture of the professional you are thinking of retaining. In the final analysis, no matter how “corporate” a law firm is, your relationship will be with the individual lawyer who is handling or supervising your case. Get to know him.
Lawyers pay to be found on the Web, of course, just as much as they pay to be found in the Yellow Pages (if not more!). Even if you decide to go through Google or another public search engine that offers results without cost to the sites they show you, you can bet that the law firms showing up at the top of your keyword search paid good money to have their web sites designed and “optimized” to maximize the number of searches that will bring their sites to the top of the list. I certainly did! Read what the websites have to say, but recognize that there is a fair chance that unless authorship is specifically credited to the divorce lawyer you are researching, you are reading professional ad copy written by someone other than the attorney.
If you don’t know where to start, there are plenty of websites designed to help you (some better than others, so use your judgment). Here are a few of them, along with my comments:
Google keyword search. This is a fair starting point. It can be like drinking from a firehose, but with a little patience and judgment you can get some very good basic information about Pennsylvania divorce and family law in general, and about the family lawyers in your area (and what they have to say). Once you have some likely prospects, look particularly for articles, blogs or other writings authored by the divorce attorney you are researching.
Pennsylvania Supreme Court Disciplinary Board. This will not help you find a lawyer, but it will help you make sure that a lawyer you are investigating is in good standing with the Pennsylvania bar. All lawyers admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania will be registered here.
Avvo. I like Avvo quite a bit. It creates profiles for individual lawyers that they can “claim” and add useful information such as areas of practice and professional history, and — especially important — some of the critical information on the profile is out of the lawyer’s control. The site “rates” lawyers according to an arbitrary point system that I view more than a little skeptically (e.g., young lawyers rated with more experience than old warhorses), but it does identify important information such as the length of time the attorney has been licensed, and whether there have been disciplinary issues. It lets clients rate attorneys. It gives lawyers the opportunity to submit articles that you can access from their profiles, and (for lawyers who participate) you can see how they answered short legal questions posted by others.
Nolo. This is one of many “find a lawyer” directories that might help you narrow the field. This is a directory that lawyers pay to participate in, but it is a handy collection of successful local lawyers in the discipline you seek, along with links to their websites. You can also browse a substantial collection of articles on a variety of legal topics, including articles by divorce attorneys.
Talk to your prospects.
The more involved your case, the closer you are going to be working with your lawyer. Don’t make the mistake of thinking that this is going to be like working with a mechanic; after all, you can’t just “drop off” your case to a family law practice and come by later to pay the bill and drive it away. Talk to this person, listen to this person, and see how comfortable you feel at the prospect of making important life decisions under this person’s guidance and protection. A lawyer should be willing to give you at least a few minutes on the telephone before charging you anything at all, both to get a sense of your case and to give you a sense of who you are dealing with. Don’t expect the lawyer to give you a full consultation by telephone, or to give you more than about ten or fifteen minutes — our time is what we sell, after all — but that is plenty of time to get at least a general idea of whether this person is worth more of your time, as well as your money.
Value a lawyer’s experience, knowledge and personality over his price.
I realize that this sounds a little self-serving, but give it some thought. There is no virtue in paying more for something than you have to, but neither is there virtue in false economy. All lawyers are not created equal. An inexperienced attorney (no matter how affordable) can give you book-learning, whereas an experienced attorney understands the law and how it applies to your case. An experienced attorney has a strong working familiarity with the court system and its personnel, and can give you not just his own knowledge, but also the experience of many other clients who have faced issues not much different than yours. He can help you learn from the mistakes of others, choose which battles not to fight, and will help you make the most out of your circumstances long before it is time to go to divorce court.
Incidentally, beware of proud-but-empty boasts like, “Over 30 years of combined experience!” Experience doesn’t combine.
A family lawyer’s attitude also matters. There is a particular child support case from several years ago that comes to my mind, in which both parents were full-time, W-2 wage-earners. Because the Pennsylvania Child Support Guidelines are fairly straightforward when nobody is fighting over earning capacity and there are no other issues, I proposed to my opposing counsel that we exchange income information, run the numbers, and see if we could enter into a consent child support order that would spare everyone a trip to court. “No,” said the other lawyer, very matter-of-factly, “If I do that, I don’t get to charge my client to appear at the hearing.” Jaw, meet floor. That’s not how I do business — to my mind, I can’t do that and still call myself a professional — but greedy self-serving lawyers like that are out there. So are the angry ones, so are the cynical ones, so are the self-important and self-impressed ones. So are the inexperienced ones. Even if you find them at a cheaper hourly rate, all of them can end up costing you more money than necessary as they spend extra billable time to berate, inflate or educate at your expense.
Retain the professional, not the price tag.
What to expect from your family law attorney.
I have written a lengthy article about what to expect from a divorce lawyer. If you retain a family practice attorney and he does not appear to be living up to your expectations, never fear getting a second opinion or a “reality check” from another attorney. Never forget that this is your case, and that long after your lawyer has moved on to other matters you will still be living the consequences of your choices. Make sure that you choose a divorce lawyer who seems to understand that essential truth.
If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with a Pittsburgh divorce lawyer. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential. We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.