The Internet Is Not Enough
One of the most important things you can do when you are confronted with a legal challenge is to crack open some books and start doing some homework. Learning how a divorce or custody will specifically affect you will give you a better understanding of what, specifically, you should expect about the upcoming legal processes. Armed with that knowledge, you will be able to start thinking about the types of goals you want to set for yourself.
The issue that you will quickly run into though is two-fold. First, it’s overwhelming. There is a lot of stuff going on in the world of divorce and custody and it’s just not easy to digest it all in a way that is easily recalled or even utilized. That’s not to say that you couldn’t do it, but be realistic. You would be doing this on the back of trying to manage your life as normal with work and social engagements, whatever conflict you directly have with your partner, probably emotional and physical stress, and God-knows what else.
Second, most of what you will find on during your searches is generalist advice. It is purposefully vague and non-specific, because no two cases are the same because no two people are the same. Even in circumstances that have similar base facts, the avenues towards resolution and the eventual outcomes will be different. Unless you are prepared to go and hunker down at he law library for 20+ hours a week to start digging through procedural information on navigating the court and legal system, as well as documenting helpful bits of case law, the internet and the resources at your disposal are rarely ever enough.
You need to go talk to someone who can give you concrete direction and who can help you grapple with the extremely broad discretion the Family Courts have in making decisions.
Finding the Right Attorney
There are a lot of attorneys out there that are all vying for your attention and time, and there are even a lot of service directories out there that will try and spoon feed you law offices based on your search preferences. The question becomes, then, “How do I sift through all of this and find the attorney that’s right for me?”
Practically speaking, this is going to be a lot like dating. You need to find someone who has a vision for your case that aligns with the goals you have for your life. Prior to looking for an attorney, you need to think about what kind of goals you want to achieve and what kind of things you need support on. Is custody your only concern? Do you have a complex financial estate? Is there a shadow of domestic violence hanging over you? While there will be a lot of attorneys out there that encounter all of these things in the course of their practice, you may be better served looking for the Firm or attorney who has carved out that niche for themselves and become the go to.
As part of your search, focus on the niche and the people and Firms that have that narrower scope. There are a lot of Firms out there that do a bunch of things, but it doesn’t mean they do it well. Someone who’s been practicing law for 20 years but is a generalist that takes on personal injury, restraining orders, tenant/landlord law, and family law is probably not going to be as good as someone who has even 5 to 7 years focusing exclusively on divorce and custody cases. There just isn’t enough time in the day for them to be well versed in all of their points of interest, and there is a good chance that they lack in experience with similar case histories to yours.
This isn’t a knock against generalist attorneys – there are a lot of great ones out there, and there are a lot of generalist Firms that have a dedicated Family Law attorney who does nothing but that. It is just a caution to you on finding the person best suited for your case.
Making the Most of It
From a practical standpoint, you should not expect free, one on one time with an attorney to receive in depth legal advice about your case. A general question or two might be likely, but you need to bear in mind that legal advice is work product for lawyers. It is typical for a flat rate to be applied for say, an hour of time, and you need to make sure that you put yourself in a position to make use of that time effectively.
Prior to meeting with anyone, or even calling a Firm, you should have done a bit of reading on divorce procedures – something like the articles we post on our website. Just anything to get the gist of what you might expect in the coming days. The biggest reason for this is so that you can start formulating thoughtful questions to ask the attorney you’re going to meet with. Where ever possible, don’t waste your time asking a very general question that could be resolved with a web search. For example, a very common question we get is “how long do I have to respond to a divorce complaint?” You can get a generalized answer by clicking that link and finding the resources available on the Mass.gov website. On the other hand, a much better question to ask would be, “Based on the facts of my case, how would you go about achieving the goal of ensuring my financial independence after the divorce?”
The time you spend prior to your meeting jotting down questions like that will not only give you more insight into the prospectus of your outcomes, but it will help you size up the attorney you’re meeting with. If you’re going into the meeting where a complaint has already been filed, bring a copy of the complaint with you and go over it with the attorney.
As a side note regarding documents, the initial meeting is a time to keep the scope of things fairly narrow. Only bring a few items with you that are most relevant to right now. If you have to address a modification to an existing agreement, bring a copy of that and highlight the portions that are of most concern so the entire thing doesn’t have to be reviewed. You can easily get bogged down in broad scope details when a narrow focus would serve you better.
Getting to Know the Attorney
Finally, you should take the opportunity to get to know your attorney. If you’ve gone as far as a consultation, you should have already been exposed to the lawyer or Firm in some capacity. How did they respond to your initial needs? Were they attentive in hearing your story? Did they ask good follow up questions so they could prepare to meet with you? How was your experience with the Firm prior to the consultation?
When you have direct face time, don’t be afraid to ask them about their experience, qualifications, and case load. This attorney is going to be a part of your team, and their job is to be a vigorous advocate for you and your interests. It is not an exaggeration to say that the outcome of your case will have a meaningful impact on your life, so it’s important to understand how it’s all going to work. What’s the fee structure like? When and how will you be billed? A good attorney or Firm will answer these questions honestly and clearly. Not doing so can be a red flag.
You will need to be able to place trust in your attorney like you may not have been able to do for a long time, and you’re going to need to trust your gut on whether or not they can handle the responsibility of caring for your future. You don’t want to start that relationship on the basis of lies or promises that the attorney simply has no hope of fulfilling just because they wanted your business.