What Qualities Should I Look For In A Family Law Attorney?
Increasingly people are considering the price of hiring a family law attorney. No one wants to spend more than they have to, and certainly price is one practical consideration people have.
Even in the greater New York City area, you can easily find divorce attorneys who will only charge you a few hundred dollars up-front. You’ll also find middle of the road divorce attorneys who will charge anything from a few thousand to anywhere from $5000 to $10,000. You can find elite divorce attorneys that will charge somewhere in the range of $10,000 to $25,000 or more up-front – all before they even look at you. Suffice it to say, there are a lot of reasons which factor into why attorneys charge different amounts.
Going to see a lawyer is very dissimilar to going to see a doctor – because when you go to see a doctor, you don’t ask how many years they’ve been out of medical school, what school they attended, what grades they received, or what type of experience they have. No one grills his/her doctor on such factors – but they absolutely should interview their prospective attorney like that. Even if you don’t necessarily have the confidence to ask those questions at a one-on-one consultation, you should nevertheless be able to glean the information you need right from the attorney’s website. You should feel free to email the attorney and ask the questions you need in order to effectively assess their qualifications and experience.
One factor to look at is their experience. Some attorneys are fresh out of law school, while some attorneys have 10 or 20 years of experience – still others have 30 or more years of experience. Experience is certainly one factor you should consider. However, you shouldn’t conclude that merely because one attorney has 30 years of experience and another has only 10 or 20 years of experience, presumptively the one with 30 years of experience is better. You have to dig deeper and determine the nature of the experience.
For instance, if an attorney has 30 years of experience, but only 10% of his/her practice covers divorce law, you may want to seek an attorney with more experience in dealing specifically with divorce cases.
Even if the attorney with 30 years’ experience claims that 50% of his/her practice covers divorce law, you should ask for how long that has been the case. Maybe this has only been the case since the real estate bubble burst (back in 2007 or 2008). If this is the case, then only over the last 10 years or so has 50% or more of their practice been divorce law. If an attorney has 20 years of experience, but close to 100% of their practice is divorce law and that has been the case throughout all 20 years of practice, then that attorney is going to be a better qualified (all else being equal) to take your case.
The other question to ask your prospective attorney is how many cases they generally handle at one time. The reason this is relevant is because there have been studies that say it is arguably malpractice for a typical family law attorney in New York to do more than about 70 cases at a time. In fact, there was a deposition testimony given in a case called Nicholson vs. Scopetta. The testimony was given by two of the heads of Attorneys for Children panels here in New York City. They gave sworn testimony saying that no family law practitioner should have anything more than approximately 50 to 70 cases.
Despite this, you will absolutely find family law attorneys who have anywhere from 80 to 150 cases they are handling at a time. The problem is if you are handling many more cases than the research says can be handled responsibly, one of two things are invariably occurring: either that attorney is literally working 24 hours a day, seven days a week, and burning themselves out, or they are committing varied forms of malpractice on at least some of the cases. Malpractice oftentimes comes in through sheer neglect of cases. I often refer to those firms as “divorce mills,” because you’ll oftentimes see groupings of these law firms in and around the courthouses. Sometimes they will even have neon signs in their windows that read, “Divorce Attorney!”
A lot of times, people who don’t have a lot of money will be desperate and will pay a few hundred dollars to these firms to process their divorce cases. As a practical matter, if you don’t have a lot of money to afford a divorce attorney, then it’s an unfortunate but practical consideration you have to make. In that case, price will be your overriding factor in who you hire.
For most other people who make a halfway decent income, knowing how many cases your attorney is handling at any given time is absolutely a question that you should ask. Some divorce attorneys serve as public defenders – which is a noble profession. In fact, I am on the Attorneys for Children panel in Westchester County. Historically, I’ve occasionally accepted adult assignments through the courts as well, and people should do that. That’s giving back to the community and to the less fortunate.
However, if you have decent income, and you are considering hiring an attorney, do you want to hire an attorney who has 100 public defender cases on their docket, and is literally doing three, four, or five cases a day? Do you want an attorney who is running around like a chicken with their head cut off, and can’t even remember their client’s names? Resist the temptation to allow price to be your guide when selecting your divorce attorney!
I was once hired by a client who had a decent income working for the NYPD. She was earning approximately $100,000 a year, and she hired me after having hired one of my competitors here in the Bronx. He is relatively notorious for having a caseload of between 100 and 150 cases. He is a typical mill attorney. This client had a relatively simple child support case, with no complicating factors. On the very first court date, her attorney showed up no less than four hours late for the court case, and never called her or the court to say that he was running late. When he finally showed up, he didn’t know who she was. He had to call out in the waiting area, blurting her name out so that everyone could hear it. Then he went up to her and basically shrugged his shoulders. He never apologized, he went into court and the judge said, “Too late, I’m not doing your case.” The case was adjourned for three months.
To make matters worse, this client was penalized further when the Magistrate refused to set a temporary order of support. So my client, who was struggling financially, went without support for three months while awaiting her next court date. Suffice it to say, she learned the hard way that an important question to ask your prospective family law attorney is how many cases they will be handling at any one time. She went in with the misconception that she could hire any family law attorney, and she thought she was getting a really good deal. So, for someone who earns decent money, price should not be your number one consideration in hiring an attorney. Instead, you should focus on quality.
The father in that same case chose to hire an attorney who is also on the public defender panel and carries a caseload of between 100 to 150 cases. That attorney treated the case the same way. So, on each court date we had, he called out the client’s name in the waiting area because he had no idea of who he was. Each time the case was on, the guy would always say he was in a rush. On one of the dates, he had a trial and forgot to tell his own client he couldn’t appear that day. When I expressed to him it was really not professional to accept a private retainer on a day he had multiple other cases on, he basically just shrugged his shoulders and walked away. The case got adjourned that day to the chagrin of his own client.
So, what consequences did it have for his client on that case? When we went to resolve the case, his attorney came up to me and wanted to negotiate a settlement. I looked him in the eye and told him I wasn’t willing to negotiate a single thing because of the way he had conducted himself on the case. He walked away on multiple court dates, causing my client financial strain. Instead of knowing the law well enough and really having researched this particular case in order to negotiate a fair settlement, he literally shrugged his shoulders, went back to his client and said, “Oh well! They don’t want to negotiate, so I guess we’re stuck with the guidelines for child support.” He then turned away, went into the courtroom, and waited for the case to be called.
There is no doubt that through the multiple adjournments, this guy probably paid his attorney a couple of thousand dollars to do this case. This attorney ended up being nothing better than a warm body in the seat next to him. That client made approximately $150,000 a year and certainly could have hired a far better attorney to represent him, but he mistakenly used price as the number one consideration in whom to hire. Now he’s stuck with a much higher child support amount for the life of the case because he chose to save a couple of hundred dollars on his attorney.
Red Flags Associated With Divorce Attorneys
I’m a big believer in a jack of all trades and master of none. So, you’ll definitely find attorneys out there who have signs or ads saying they do divorce law, bankruptcy, real estate, slip and falls, etc. They will pretty much take any case which comes along.
Think about it this way: if you have a serious heart problem, would you just go into a general practitioner, or would you go to a cardiac specialist? Most people would say they want to see a cardiac specialist in that instance, because they want to live. It’s the same thing with the law. If you go into a general practitioner who practices several different areas of law, they are not a specialist, and they are dividing out their experience into all those areas of law. So, when it comes time for the nuances, to negotiate successful settlements or even to do a divorce trial, they are not going to know how to handle those nuances as well as a specialist would.
I had a potential client that came into my office who had gone to a general practitioner. The general practitioner had told her she would not qualify for maintenance if she was not a housewife. I found this advice so far removed from the truth it was outright deceiving, yet the people who walk into that attorney’s office don’t know any better if they don’t shop around or go to a specialist. I already went into how New York has maintenance guidelines and a maintenance calculator to arrive at the proper amount – in no way, shape or form is there a requirement that the prospective recipient be a housewife in order to get maintenance.
The same general practitioner said to the same potential client that if she had child custody or child support issues, she should go to Family Court and file there first – and only then should she come back and do the divorce case. Sometimes that’s good advice, but in her case it was horrible advice. This is because of the fact that she and her spouse were currently living together. If she had tried to file her child custody or support case in family court, most likely they would have rejected it and she would have wasted time. Moreover, if she had retained this attorney to do this family court case, she would have wasted that money.
That’s all the more reason to really make sure that you have a specialist. If you have an important custody or visitation issue, child support issue and/or you have a high amount of property or finances at stake in your divorce case, you really want somebody that is well experienced in your particular area of law.
Attorneys with Their Own Agendas
In addition to the above, I often tell people that I tend to take anyone who has a good case and is willing to pay my fee – without me having an agenda. You will definitely find some family law attorneys who say they’re a “father’s rights attorney,” or a “mother’s rights attorney,” or an advocate on behalf of domestic violence victims, and so on. The problem is that the attorney has a clear agenda, and they are invariably imposing their own values or beliefs on your case irrespective of whether that’s right for your case.
For example, I had an attorney on a case that was a mother’s rights advocate. She mostly represented females. She incorrectly advised her client by telling her maintenance (otherwise known as alimony) is “an entitlement of women.” Even though this woman had teaching credentials and she could go back into the workforce and be a teacher earning $60,000, $70,000 or $80,000 a year, this attorney actually advised her not to look for a job. Instead, she advised her to stay at home and ask for maintenance from her husband, because that’s “her entitlement as a woman.” Not only is this notion offensive to women – to treat them like that and to assume it’s their proper role to essentially be a housewife instead of someone out working in the workforce – but she is also clearly imposing her own personal beliefs and values on her client, which is equally wrong.
You therefore want to ask your potential attorney if they represent more women or men, or if it’s pretty much equal. You should ask your potential attorney if they have any agendas they are trying to pursue in terms of representing clients.
Finally, another assessment in retaining a good attorney to ask is what the objective criteria are which support hiring that attorney. For instance, are they a former prosecutor? If so, that’s unparalleled experience, especially in terms of trial experience. The other objective criteria to look at are their AVVO ratings. Are they listed as a Super Lawyer by Thompson Reuters? Do they have an AV rating from Martindale Hubbell? What are their client reviews?
Moreover, you can go on various websites such as AVVO and Google and look at their client reviews. A good attorney is no doubt going to have a few negative reviews. If you go on Amazon and look at the best products out there, somebody is going to be displeased with that product. But if you go and look at a particular, very popular product on Amazon, you might see a hundred reviews. If only five of them are negative, that should not dissuade you from buying that product, because that product has a 95% approval rating. Likewise, when you go on and look at a lawyer, if they have 100 reviews and 95% of them are positive, then that’s a good attorney. You want to hire that attorney. If an attorney has no reviews at all, then you can’t assess whether their clients even like them, and that should be a factor. If they only have 10 or 20 reviews and a disproportionate share are negative, then that should also be a consideration that you make.
A final note about fake accolades or fake reviews. There are some websites cropping up which “sell accolades” to attorneys which make them appear good, but there’s no verification process. Thus, you may see an attorney with a badge on their website saying they’re a “TOP DIVORCE ATTORNEY” or in the “Top 20% of Divorce Attorneys.” Be wary of such fake accolades.
How do you know? If an accolade is connected to an organization, any good organization is going to be connected to a major legal publishing (Thompson Reuters, American Law Media, Martindale Hubbell), etc.), a bar Association, or be connected to an independent company or lawyers’ committee which has an extensive website promoting what it does, how many lawyers are associated with it, whether it’s bar approved, etc. Don’t hesitate to ask that attorney if s/he advertises that they’re a “Top 10% attorney” how the organization who awarded the accolade arrived at that determination. If they don’t know (or can quickly point you to information allowing you to verify for yourself), then walk out.
Fake reviews – they happen, and there’s little way a consumer can verify the real ones from the fake ones. Just be wary if an attorney has all positive reviews, or an attorney has hundreds of reviews while other competitors have 10-20. S/he may be paying for their reviews – thus, look a sampling of the reviews: are many of them generic (“He’s a great attorney!”), or do they contain case-specific details? The more generic they are, especially if there’s a lot of generics, the more likely the attorney is paying for the reviews – steer clear.
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