|CHOOSING A LAWYER IN
THE TEXAS DIVORCE
|Obviously, we think that
many people can do their own divorces, without having to spend hundreds
or thousands of dollars on attorneys' fees. Still, we recognize
that there are people out there who need to be represented by legal
counsel. In some cases, they simply don't feel comfortable
handling their own legal work. In others, they have become
enmeshed in a contested case, and they have no choice but to hire an
The question then becomes, "How do I choose a lawyer out of the hundreds who are out there and know that I'm going to get some good representation at a fair price?" We'd like to offer a few tips to help you along that rocky path. We think you can apply these rules to any Texas attorney, from Dallas to San Antonio, and Houston to El Paso. Good luck!
Number One - Reputation - Perhaps the best tool for evaluating the skills of a Texas divorce lawyer is just talking to friends and relatives. Who did they use for their divorce? Were they satisfied with the results? Did they feel that they had full access to the attorney and his/her staff? Did they feel that they were kept fully informed about the progress of their cases?
An amazing number of times, you'll hear the same names over and over. Lawyers know that when they reach that magical level where they're getting word of mouth referrals, they've turned the corner in their business. If you can establish a pool of 3 or 4 lawyers that your friends and relatives recommend, you're well on your way to finding the right attorney.
Number Two - Free Consultations - Many attorneys will offer a free, initial consultation. It gives you, as a client, the opportunity to sit down with the lawyer and try him/her on for size. It gives you a chance to judge whether you're comfortable with the attorney, whether he/she seems to care about you as a person, whether they're good or bad at communicating.
It's also good for the attorney. Honest attorneys know that the more their clients know about the divorce process the easier the case will be. People don't like to feel that they're being kept in the dark and they've turned their futures over to someone they barely know. We want to know what's happening and why. Good lawyers want you to know that. An initial consultation with a good lawyer should be brief, but very informative. You should leave the office knowing more than when you walked in, and feeling confidence in the attorney. And, it shouldn't cost you one slim dime for that first conference.
Number Three - Staff - There's an old saying that, "The institution is the shadow of the man who runs it." In other words, you can tell a lot about the attitude of the lawyer by the way his staff behaves. Are the secretaries, legal assistants, and paralegals friendly? Do they treat you like a person and act as if they're concerned? Do they seem competent and well informed?
Unfortunately, many people take their cues from their bosses. If you walk into an attorneys' office and the secretary greets you with a smile and a hand shake, you can probably infer that the lawyer cares about his/her clients. On the other hand, if you're greeted with a peremptory nod, or not greeted at all, if you're not offered a cup of coffee or water, don't expect much from the lawyer. An employee can only act that way if the boss tolerates it. If he/she tolerates it, then you don't need that lawyer.
Number Four - Specialty - Does the lawyer primarily handle family law? And we want to emphasize something here: we're not talking about, "family law specialist." The Texas State Bar has a series of courses and tests that allow lawyers to advertise as, "Board Certified Family Law Specialist."
And that's a good thing, but it doesn't necessarily mean that they're good divorce lawyers or even that they handle a lot of divorce cases. Sometimes it just means that they're good at taking tests. Here's what one lawyer told the author of this article:
"After practicing law for 28 years, I don't think I need to take some goddamned test to prove I know how to be lawyer."
Here's what another, "Board Certified," attorney said:
"I purely hate doing family law. The clients are out of control, it's twice as much work as any other kind of law, and you've got to have one conference after another. Sure, I dip into it my bank account gets low, but I'd much rather do real estate law."
Now, the first lawyer was handling several thousand divorces a year. The second lawyer was doing a few dozen. Don't be fooled by certifications. And don't be shy about asking the lawyer what his/her average case load is and what percentage of that is family law.
Number Five - Flat Fees - One of the things that people hate most about lawyers is the hourly rate. A task force for the American Bar Association actually cited that as one of the major reasons that people are turning to representing themselves.
There are many lawyers out there who keep a timer on their desks and they turn it on the second that you sit down. Sometimes it's a hundred dollars an hour, sometimes it's 200 or more. It's a little difficult to concentrate when you're watching your dollars tick away in front of you.
So it's a good sign if the lawyer is willing to quote a flat fee for his/her services. And it's not unreasonable at all. A good family law attorney who's processing a lot of cases will know what he/she will be putting into the average case and can charge appropriately. And you should be able to ask how much it will cost if your case becomes contested, and get a reasonable answer, not, "Well, then I start charging a hundred dollars an hour."
Even more important to bear in mind is that attorneys who charge hourly rates quite often have a whole bunch of hidden costs that go along with those hourly rates. They actually attend seminars to find out how to extract more money from your wallet. You suddenly find that you're being charged ten dollars every time the secretary answers your phone call, twenty five dollars every time you talk to the lawyer on the phone, five bucks every time they photocopy a piece of paper from your file. It all adds up.
Number Six - Appearances - You know not to judge a book by it's cover. It's an equally bad idea to judge a lawyer by his/her office. Unless you're exclusively taking care of millionaires and movie stars, you don't make a ton of money in family law. The money's good, but it not GREAT. So don't assume that the lawyer must not be very good just because he/she doesn't have a fancy office. One of the best divorce attorneys this author ever met operated out of a little cubby hole of an office with files stacked in every corner and on every chair.
We've all seen the television versions of a law office on, "L.A. Law," and, "Alley McBeal." The law offices have multiple partners and take up huge amounts of space in expensive office buildings and the phones never ring,
except when the lawyer is taking a call from his/her extremely attractive lover. In real life, most family law offices are two or three rooms, with a coffee pot, a bathroom, and four phone lines that never stop screaming.
Nonetheless, there's a certain amount of truth in the television offices. Lawyers love props almost as much as television producers. One of the first major expenses for a lawyer is a set of hundreds of leather bound books containing the annotated codes of their state and of the United States. They take up one whole wall of the lawyers office and they look extremely impressive. Lawyers never tire of having their pictures taken in front of their books.
In reality, that's about all those books are: backdrops. Most lawyers never pick them up, much less open them. They sit there for years gathering dust and looking impressive. So take a careful look at your potential lawyers' environment. Certainly huge leather chairs and dozens of brass lamps with green shades make a very impressive appearance. But remember: it's an appearance. And someone has to pay for those expensive chairs. Guess who?
Number Seven - Approach - How your lawyer approaches your case is one of the most important cues you can have. Are they interested in working out a compromise, do they encourage you to communicate with your spouse, do they tell you what you can't get, as well as what you can?
Lawyers can turn a case into a contested case without the client even knowing how it happened. Here's an example of a standard trick: In any court case, you have to prove that the other party has been notified of the case. That's to give them an opportunity to hire a lawyer and put on a good defense, if they feel that they're being screwed over. Now, in a Texas divorce, you can prove that one of two ways: you can have your spouse sign a document called a Waiver of Citation that says, "Okey dokey, I've been notified." The other way is to have a deputy or process server hand the papers to your spouse, and then the deputy swears that your spouse has been notified.
In about 70 percent of the cases this author saw, the other party would sign the papers voluntarily. Sometimes they might start out refusing to sign them, but as time went by and they realized it wasn't worth getting into an expensive fight, they'd sign off. So, in the majority of the cases, there was absolutely no sense in spending the extra time and money to pay a process server.
There are attorneys out there, however, who have the other spouse served in every single case, and they have them served at work if at all possible. Why? Imagine that you're at work, surrounded by your fellow employees, when suddenly the door opens, a deputy walks in and says, "You're being sued for divorce. Here are your papers."
What's your reaction? If you're a normal person, you're intensely humiliated and embarrassed. And then you get really, really angry. And then you go out and hire a lawyer. And then the lawyers have a contested case and they laugh all the way to the bank.
So take a careful look at how the lawyer is approaching your case. If they're promising you that they'll get you everything and they'll crush your spouse like a gnat - look out! If they want to start out with tactics that will scare or humiliate your spouse, ask why. You've got two months to wind up a normal divorce. There's plenty of time to negotiate and compromise and that keeps your money in your own pocket. Get your case turned into a contest, and you'll have even more time before you wind up your case - sometimes up to a year. And guess who's pockets your money ends up in?
About the author: Daniel Adair spent 16 years working in a family law office in Central Texas. He is the author of, "The Texas Divorce Course, A Peoples' Guide to the Texas Divorce System," and has written extensively on the Texas divorce process.