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Telltale Signs of a Good Family Law Attorney

How do you find the RIGHT lawyer for you and your separation and divorce? Here are some helpful tips from a retired family law judge.
(5 min 5 sec read)

Hon. Sherrill Ellsworth (RET)
Judge Ellsworth was one of the court's most respected and admired bench officers. She retired from the bench to focus on having a greater impact on today’s families by making our courts more accessible, effective, and efficient.

It is a bit surprising to note that many people use less diligence in seeking out a competent family law attorney than they do finding a plumber, hairdresser or a landscaper. How do you go about finding the RIGHT lawyer for you and your separation and divorce?

Everyone from your child’s baseball coach to your friends at the gym will be ready, willing and able to give you a referral. But, beware of well-meaning but often times, misguided notions from folks in your social circles. Steer clear from encouragement to find the most barbaric and cruel gladiator in the pool. Attorneys with reputations of ‘taking no prisoners’ often lead to the decimation of the already fractured family and finances.

Speaking as a Judge who sat on the bench in Family Court for years, I can say Family Law attorneys often get a bad rap. Part of that may be due to the type of highly charged emotional combat zone in which they practice, in part may be due to losing themselves in the trauma of their clients, in part may be some attorneys that take family law cases are practicing outside their integrity or above their skill level. There are many, many, many excellent Family Law practitioners who truly do a noble job of representing their clients with integrity and expertise. Judges love these attorneys.  

Master Communicator and Listener

One of the hallmarks of a good listener is someone who can listen in silence, take in what you say and then repeat back to you what it is you are communicating to them. In other words, the listener is able to echo back your words, sentiment and your needs as you have expressed them. Echoing ensures that everyone is on the same page or in concert as the desired outcome of the speaker. Echo is a framework for understanding and meaningful conversations. It helps to eradicate misinterpretation and misunderstanding. The same holds true for seeking out a good family law attorney.

Deep Relevant Family Law Experience

Experience when it comes to family law is critical. Do your homework. Get a good look at their CV, years practiced any specialty certifications, community service, pro bono work, and awards. Consider finding someone who is dedicated to the single practice of Family Law which is very complicated as opposed to someone who takes anything that walks through the door.

You need an attorney that understands you and is easily understood. Communication is key to a good relationship with your lawyer. This begins in the very first consultation. After that first meeting, ask yourself these questions;

  • Did you have a dialog, a real conversation or did you hear a lot about the attorney and their boastful conquests and talents?
  • Did you get to tell your story? Did you feel heard?
  • Was the communication rushed or did you feel that the candidate for hire was paying attention to you, engaged, asking questions, and making you feel that he/she was aware of all the facts you wanted to relate?
  • Did the attorney AND their staff clearly communicate with you regarding billing, expectations, next steps while providing you both written and oral directives on what your relationship with your attorney and staff will be?
  • Did you leave that initial communication assured or confused?

Honest and Straight Shooter

Honesty, integrity, work ethic is the core values of a good family law attorney. A good family law attorney will tell you the truth even if adverse to your “wants.” A good family law attorney prides themselves on bringing truth and facts to the Court on your behalf and not smoke, mirrors, or bombastic half-truths. From a judge’s point of view, I can tell you, they are not helping you. Beware of an attorney who promises the moon because they often deliver nothing more than sorry excuses in the end. One of the best ways to test the honesty factor in a family law attorney interview and ask flat out for that lawyer to give you their projections as to outcomes and challenges. An honest attorney will not make promises about outcomes but, will carefully outline strategies, approaches, and ways to proceed. If your attorney EVER asks you to “stretch” the truth or prompts you to the rim of dishonesty about anything then that is not a good attorney.

A good family law attorney will be interviewing you and sizing you up at the same time to make sure that you are also a good fit for them. You should be very clear, and your attorney candidate should clarify the obligations of both the lawyer and the client. Any veteran family law practitioner worth their salt will tell you what they expect of you as a client to be obligated to perform under this contract and relationship.

You should be obligated to be honest, be civil to your ex, report any law enforcement contact immediately, to keep your attorney in the loop, to follow the “plan”, to provide clear and relevant information. You are obligated to pay certain amounts and replenish the retainer if the balance drops to a certain point. You are obligated to be upfront about your availability for the children etc. Your attorney should have firm boundaries and outlined duties, promises or obligations for you as a client as well as for them as your counsel. ‘If you do this, I am obligated to do that …’

Talk to at least three potential candidates, it is worth the time and experience. Some may be annoyed by this, good lawyers will respect and understand the process. It will help you understand what is the best fit for you, the differences between firms/lawyers and ultimately what is a match for your needs. Let them know you’re shopping around.

Be prompt. Ask questions. Research them and their practice. Go watch your potential attorney in action. Find out when they will be in Court; courts allow the public to come on in and watch. See how the judges and other attorneys react to your prospect. When you choose the right fit for you, let the other attorneys know.

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