Five Warning Flags Before You Hire a Divorce or Family Law Lawyer

Divorce and family law issues touch on the things most important to us – our families. Family law issues can be emotional, confusing, and frustrating. Clients need to choose an attorney who will help them through the process, not add to the process.

1. Unnecessarily aggressive is not necessarily a plus

Most people’s goal in a divorce or family law matter is to get through the process while preserving as much dignity and family cohesiveness as possible. We have all heard about the “bulldog” or “shark” family law attorney, sometimes as a positive trait. But when it comes down to it, do you really want an attorney who is willing to create problems where there are none already? Be wary of an attorney who is pushing you to pick fights over problems that you don’t really have. That’s just billing you for creating problems. For instance, if you and your spouse have worked hard to come to a complete settlement agreement, does the reviewing attorney want to unwind your agreement only to create a battle in court? Is this really advancing your interests? Evaluate carefully – sometimes unnecessary battles can serve only to generate legal fees.

2. Unreasonable billing minimums

Attorneys are required to practice pursuant to established ethical guidelines, including a requirement that fees be reasonable. What constitutes “reasonable” is certainly up for debate. However, it should raise a warning flag if an attorney charges 20% or 30% of an hour every time they touch the file. Sometimes such billing minimums are baked right into the fee agreement. Consider this: A family law lawyer billing at $250.00 sends you an e-mail that takes 2 minutes. Pursuant to that lawyer’s fee agreement, they bill at a 0.3 hour minimum. Suddenly, that 2 minute e-mail is billed for 0.3 hours, or 18 minutes. At $250 an hour, this email just cost you $75.00! No multiply that out over sever months an potentially hundreds of similar small transactions. You can see that over-billing can add up fast. Unfortunately, this practice is too common and is often accepted by clients who see it as part of the process. It is not. You should demand and require fair billing practices.

3. They never send invoices

In keeping with the financial issues of hiring a lawyer, you should be cautious with any attorney billing on an hourly basis who does not send you regular invoices or statements for work performed. Too often lawyers will send a bill after 6+ months of service, sometimes for tens of thousands of dollars. In the most egregious cases, the sum is not even itemized. How are you to determine (1) what your attorney is actually working on; or (2) if their bill is reasonable if they are not keeping you updated? Good billing practices should require your attorney to account for time spent billing on your case. You should be receiving some sort of written accounting at least every two months, but preferably monthly. This allows you to keep tabs on your total bill and account for the work being done on your behalf. Unless the attorney is working on your family law matter for a flat fee, you should be wary of the lawyer who refuses to provide you with a regular accounting of their services.

4. Grand promises

Attorneys are naturally problem solvers. Generally, they like helping people. However, it should make you somewhat skeptical if your lawyer makes absolute promises or guarantees about the outcome of your case. The law is an inherently uncertain area of professional practice. Any time a case goes before a judge or jury, the outcome can never be guaranteed. Many attorneys have generated very unhappy clients by having the “slam dunk” case go sideways. Even professional basketball players miss a dunk now and again. The law is no different. If your lawyer is making a guarantee about the outcome, ask yourself what their motives might be. Is it just because they want your case? You money? You will need to be the judge. Note: A lawyer noting that you have “a very strong case based upon similar cases they have encountered” is very different the lawyer stating “oh yeah, you will get $X spousal support for 10 years guaranteed.” Be wary of promises with no caveats.

5. Poor communication

Finally, lawyers ultimately work for their clients. Accordingly, they should have regular communication with their clients. Different areas of law require different levels of communication between client and attorney. However, absent unusual circumstances a family law client should be able to reach their attorney within a few business days at most. If weeks or even months go by with unanswered phone calls or e-mails, this may indicate a serious problem. Ultimately, the family law matter is yours. You have a right to timely updates on the matter for which you hired the attorney. Whereas reasonable delays should sometimes be tolerated (lawyer is on vacation, in trial, preparing for trial), you should not have to wait weeks to get a response. Of course, you should be cognizant of the lawyer’s personal life (i.e. 2:00 AM phone calls generally will not be answered), it should start to concern you if inquiries during normal business hours go ignored for long periods of time.