Five Steps to Finding Your Best Divorce Lawyer

For better or worse, the outcome of a divorce - custody, support, and property allocation - is often the product of lawyering.  A good lawyer will know and fight for his or her client’s interests at every turn. 

A good lawyer is responsive to client and court needs, matches wits with opposing counsel, knows the contours of family and divorce law, and can demystify an otherwise hazy system to walk their client through each step of the way.  Because of the legal reality of divorce, finding your best New York divorce lawyer is priority one. 

Although this process can be staggeringly difficult, it can be reduced to five clear steps.

Step One: Referrals, Reviews, and Recommendations

As with so many things in life, the Internet can help.

There are three primary ways to learn about viable divorce attorneys in the first place. Some helpful, some less helpful, but a few rules of thumb can help you start the process.

Individuals seeking attorneys often come upon them through “referrals,” which is a process by which a professional or trusted associate of the seeking client specifically suggests an attorney who they think is correct for the job. 

An accountant may refer a client who has tax law questions; a physician may refer a patient who has sustained an injury and has questions about the law.  While this sounds like a working system, the sheer formality of that setup does not graft well onto divorce law. 

Perhaps the parallel to these arrangements would be a therapist providing a referral to a patient voicing his or her interest in seeking a divorce, but even that may be rare or tricky. 

More often, reviews and a recommendations—online or in person—are the best bet to learn who may be the right divorce lawyer for you. 

If you have friends, family members, or acquaintances who have successfully traversed the path of divorce, you may have a starting point.  Understandably, though, some people are hesitant to begin advertising their divorce plans until closer to the time when the sensitive matter of divorce has gone into motion. 

Beyond that, even friends and family members who have gone through divorce likely have circumstances that differ from your own:

  • Different assets to be divvied upon dissolution;
  • Different potential custody issues that may arise in the negotiations;
  • Different possible alimony arrangements as a result of individual career and income situations. 

Learning of divorce attorneys by personal recommendations, like learning through referrals, can be spotty.  That leaves online reviews and websites as a last bastion.

As any online shopper knows, some reviews are trustworthy and some are not. 

Looking to the internet for guidance can be fraught, given the fact that the most jilted client may be the most likely to leave a sour review, while the happiest client gets on with his or her post-divorce life.  Alternatively, an attorney can fluff their own reviews. 

The Internet still may be the best way: a divorce attorney’s website can usually light the way through a practice description, areas of expertise, and can give a potential client a sense of what type of representation they can expect if they go with Lawyer A versus Lawyer B.  Lawyer A may have flashy graphics, but Lawyer B’s practice may speak directly to your situation. 

Be discerning, and use better-than-ever technology to aid you in the process of finding your best New York divorce attorney.

Step Two: Determine What You Want

An attorney serves your interests, so what are those interests?

As you will probably learn by way of your research per step one, there are quite a few considerations when seeking a divorce. 

While a divorce attorney is there to help you understand all of those considerations and navigate the process in your best interest, it can be helpful to have a starting point, a baseline to find an attorney who is right for you.  

While ending a marriage is the obvious goal in divorce, it is very rarely the case that it is the only consideration to make in the process. 

Beginning to process the other considerations and wrapping your mind around how your best interests can be served, and what those interests may be, is be key to finding the right divorce attorney. 

Consider your personal circumstances, finances, and position in the marriage.  Then aggregate that information and begin to answer a few questions about the type of attorney you would like to work with:

  • What are you willing to spend on quality legal representation?  Setting a low budget for such an important event can potentially backfire, as you may get what you pay for.
  • What type of person and personality type will you be able to work with?  Working with a hands-on and proactive attorney can be preferential to a passive and calculating attorney, but only if such an approach and personality does not grate against yours.
  • What type of disputes do you anticipate?  Knowing your likely sticking points and the hot-button issues of negotiations or proceedings can help guide you to attorneys with more pointed experience in those areas.

There are basic lawyers and there are competent attorneys.  Specialties, experience, and style can differentiate even the most capable and zealous advocates. 

Finding the right attorney will be served by determining whether a certain legal strength will benefit your divorce negotiations and potential proceedings.  Because there is no code to crack to identify the perfect attorney for your circumstance, knowing the details of your situation can help begin the process.

Step Three:  Interviewing Matrimonial Lawyers

Make calls or visit divorce law offices. You won’t regret it.

A lawyer is a specialist, an expert you are hiring to perform a job for you.  If you have ever hired, you know that an interview is an imperfect but sufficient way to assess whether a candidate will be someone you can work with. 

In the context of a looming divorce, you may not find yourself with an abundance of time (or patience), but learning about your potential representative before making the plunge can assuage fears and answer questions, like:

  • What fee arrangement should you anticipate?
  • How long has the attorney practiced?
  • Does the attorney boast any particular skills or specialties?
  • Who on the attorney’s team will pitch in on your case?
  • What is the attorney’s experience with negotiations?
  • What is the lawyer’s preferred style and approach?

These are only a few of the many potential questions to prepare and ask an attorney you interview, but once you are able to draw a temperature of several attorneys and understand more about their approach and style, a preferred choice may materialize.  

This method to gain insight about a lawyer’s approach is invaluable. 

You can glean personality and style from thirty minutes of discussion, you begin to estimate potential costs from hearing about fee structures and expectations, and you can get some peace of mind knowing that you are valued as a potential client (note to reader: if you do not feel valued as a potential client, you may be in the wrong place).

As with any candidate assessment, the interview cannot tell you absolutely everything you want to know about the potential hire, but it can serve an added benefit.  Some attorneys may be willing to do more than discuss style and approach, they may be willing to hear - on a confidential basis - the general factual issues facing you in a divorce, including actual or possible custody disputes, property issues, or support. 

For that reason, asking the attorney’s opinion about time and effort expectations can help give you a sense of both that attorney’s confidence in your case as well as allow you to draw an average from the several attorneys you end up interviewing. 

Keep in mind, though, that you get what you pay for when seeking free predictions.

Step Four: Evaluate the Facts

Track record, fees, approach - add it up.

Once you’ve heard or read enough reviews, engaged in self-reflection on goals related to your divorce, and have made time for an interview or two, you will be well positioned to figure out which one of the attorneys you are considering has the requisite skills and approach you need.

You’ll have assessed their communication style by dealing with them personally, and you will likely have engaged their team just to set that up.  Expect to replicate those interactions, again and again, should you proceed to hire that attorney. 

Beyond the manner and politeness of the attorney and staff, you will probably also learn how attentive and prompt the attorney tends to be.  

Quick replies to emails or voicemails, good and assertive manner and clear and thoughtful communication can typically translate to timely filings in court and well-worded legal briefs or position papers. 

While an attorney’s skills are difficult to pinpoint by observation of manner alone, they can be evaluated to some degree through just a few interactions.

Much less abstract than communication style and promptness is a lawyer’s fee.  The sheer size of retainer the prospective attorney requires may be enough to foreclose on hiring that attorney then and there although if there are ample assets to hire an attorney, just not within your control, bring this up with the lawyer and often, that matter can be finessed.

Alternatively, a shocking bargain may infer a limited client pool (and perhaps even desperation for clients, which is rarely a good sign in an attorney).  Some may have flat fee arrangements or the capacity to provide an approximate total charge for services. 

Regardless, the self-reflection piece described above can help you ascertain what you can afford in an attorney, and the interview piece can help you determine whether the interviewee falls into that category.  Asking about the billing plan and doing the math to get an attorney who will stick with you for the long run can make all the difference. 

Logistical considerations should not be overlooked.  They can seem boring, tedious, or too loose to be determinative given only basic and surface level information, but divorce can be a long process.  

Beginning that process with an attorney who checks most all of the boxes for your plan can be the difference between a smooth legal proceeding and yet another source of stress. 

Take time on the front end to avoid stress, overcharging, miscommunications, and general heartache partway through the already - difficult process.

Step Five: Fit

Ensure Your Divorce Attorney is Right for You

While evaluation of factual details can be helpful from a sheer logistical perspective, perhaps the most important consideration is fit.  Ask yourself some basic questions:

  • Does the attorney fit with you? 
  • Do the attorney’s skills fit the unique challenges you think will arise in your divorce? 
  • Does the attorney’s style fit into what you consider effective, clear communication?

You may not be an attorney, so you are likely not well-positioned to judge legal acumen, but hiring someone in whom you can place trust requires answering those questions above in the affirmative. 

As the client, you will be forced to make hard decisions, and your attorney will be forced to effectuate a legal strategy he or she decides will best serve your interests.  Those two things cannot be done when a lawyer and client exist in completely different universes.

By ensuring that you are on the same page from the outset, whatever that means to you, you will avoid running into disagreements, distrust, and dissatisfaction. 

If you and your attorney share totally different philosophies about what a good outcome of your case will be, then your interests may not be well-served.  If you and your attorney have vastly different opinions on what constitutes a good use of funds and time, then you may wind up running out of both. 

If you and your attorney cannot agree when and where to compromise, if ever, then you may have not one but two disintegrating relationships to navigate.  Avoid this by seeking out a lawyer with experience, applicable skills, relevant expertise, strategy, and tact. 

A lawyer should first and foremost serve as a champion of your interests. 

You may be engaging in divorce from a rich husband or rich wife, you may be anticipating a messy divorce or at least a high conflict divorce, or you may be going to divorce court and facing a divorce trial-like atmosphere.  Whatever the case, an attorney who can anticipate and manage within your specific circumstances will always be preferable to a generic attorney. 

Considering fit is the key step in this process.

With an event as personal and serious as divorce as the purpose for the lawyer-client relationship, time and care should be invested into finding competent and capable prospective attorneys, but fit should take center stage in making the final choice.

Conclusion

There you have it, the basic steps to determining the right divorce attorney for you:

  1. Seek out referrals, reviews, and recommendations
  2. Determine what you want out of your divorce
  3. Engage prospective attorneys in an interview
  4. Evaluate fees, style, and track record
  5. Choose an attorney with an eye toward fit

Keep in mind that no list of considerations can predict what your specific divorce negotiations and proceedings will require in terms of legal representation and strategy.  Despite that obvious limitation, the points listed above can simplify this difficult decision into a series of steps. 

Determining the best lawyer for your circumstances will require introspection and a (worthwhile) preliminary commitment of time to the steps described here. 

Always consider that no matter how careful your decision-making process, an attorney-client relationship can deteriorate part way through any proceeding, and that may be especially true in the context of divorce.  Alternatively, you can simply decide to go in another direction with respect to legal counsel. 

You can release your attorney from service at any time, and the decision to change legal representation lies with the client.  Consulting with a separate attorney on that process is always an option.

Bikel and Schanfield is a leading New York divorce and custody trial law firm. If you expect conflicts over assets or children, we may be your best choice and we hope to be considered in the best New York divorce law firm for you process. To set up an interview:  212.682.6222 or CONNECT ONLINE