If you identify that you need a lawyer, the next question is which one do you choose? This can be daunting because it is likely foreign to be in a position where you need to retain a lawyer. You are also now having to make important decisions on your own, maybe for the first time in a long time.
It is natural to have concerns around which lawyer to retain, what the fees will likely be and whether they will give you the best advice possible. Here are my tips on how you should choose the right family lawyer for you:
Specific family lawyer
There are many lawyers around, but they don’t all practise family law or only family law. It is commonly assumed that if you are a lawyer you can advise in all areas of the law, but this is not the case. If you came to me and wanted advice on buying a business or finalising a deceased estate, for example, I would not be able to help you. Family law is my passion and only practice area.
I am otherwise rendered useless as a lawyer in any other jurisdiction! I recommend looking for a lawyer who specialises in the practice of family law. There are many lawyers known as ‘general practitioners’: these guys practise all sorts of different areas of law.
They might do a bit of property law, a bit of estate work and a bit of family law. Because they don’t practise family law day in and day out, they are unlikely to have had the experience of a family lawyer who practises exclusively in this area. You will pay the same or similar rate to a general practitioner as you would a family lawyer; therefore, I would recommend that you look to engage a lawyer who solely practises family law.
It is my view that your money will be better spent. Family law is a huge area of law that is ever evolving; it takes an expert to support you properly on your family law journey. If you are in a regional area, and there are no family lawyers in your area, you can easily retain any chosen family lawyer in Australia. The law is the same throughout, and most of what a lawyer will do for you will be on the phone and by email.
Google or a referral
To find your family lawyer, you can start where everyone starts —with Google. There are many family law firms with websites where you can get a feel for them and what they offer before phoning their office. If you have had a referral from family and friends, that’s even better. Some family lawyers offer free initial appointments, which gives you the opportunity to seek advice and to meet with the lawyer to see whether you feel comfortable to work with them.
Interview your lawyer
There is nothing wrong with interviewing a few family lawyers by attending initial appointments with them before you retain one. You are going to be relying on this professional to take care of your legal interests. In most cases, there is time to meet with more than one lawyer before you choose the right one for you.
Align your values
Different lawyers have different styles. Some family lawyers are all about putting the gloves on and getting into the courtroom as soon as possible. Other lawyers take a more collaborative approach, where they try really hard to resolve the matter for you outside of court. Have a think about your values and discern whether a potential lawyer’s values are the same as yours. You could ask some simple questions: What’s important to you in resolving family law matters? What drives your engagement with family law? Does your practice have a code of ethics or official values underpinning its work? How many trials do you do a year? (This will indicate whether they prefer to settle before it gets to Court or take a matter to trial.)
Go with your gut instinct
No matter how many years of experience they have, no matter what awards and plaques are displayed on the walls of their office, if you are not comfortable with the lawyer, that is not the lawyer for you. You may have to work with your lawyer for many months or, for some unfortunate people, even years, so it is important you have confidence in the lawyer you retain. You should also like the person you are going to be working with.
Ensure you feel valued and listened to
Your lawyer is there for you, and you deserve to be valued and understood in the process. It is really important that your lawyer listens to you and allows you time to process the advice they give you. Avoid lawyers who are more interested in telling you how successful and amazing they are than in listening to what you need from them. When you are speaking with your lawyer, you should not feel judged or talked down to: you are their client and deserve respect. Choose someone you feel is able to listen to you, value you and respect you as their client.
Be OK with a lawyer who is straight up
It is also really important to understand that the advice you receive about your matter might not be what you want to hear. Sometimes, you may feel that the advice is not favourable to you, but you are better off knowing the truth about how the law applies to your circumstances or how the court may view your case. If your lawyer is doing a great job for you, they will not be afraid to tell you the truth about where you legally stand. Sometimes this is uncomfortable; however, remember you are paying for legal advice, not something that is sugar-coated. I am sure many clients don’t retain me because I am brutally honest. It is my and my practice’s code of ethics to be honest, and I would rather be realistic and not sell a client false promises.
Avoid lawyers who promise you outcomes
Lawyers do not come equipped with crystal balls to tell you what outcome you will receive or what a judge might order in your matter. We are not fortune-tellers, just mere mortals! Skilled lawyers can, however, tell you what the law says about your circumstances and what pathways there are for you to reach a range of outcomes. So be wary of any lawyer who makes you large promises.
Ask about fees
Different law practices have different ways of billing. Some offer fixed-fee services, some offer traditional billing per hour and some offer deferred-payment arrangements. This is very helpful if you have property to sell and all your funds are tied up in the property, making it impossible for you to afford legal fees as you go. Find a lawyer who has flexible solutions that will fit your needs.
The most expensive lawyer doesn’t mean the best lawyer
Some people feel that if they retain the most expensive lawyer, they will get a better result. Or they may feel disempowered by the other side’s retaining a top-tier law firm, while they cannot afford that. This approach can cost a lot of money unnecessarily. Your particular facts of law cannot be changed — you and your lawyer can deal only with what you have before you. A practical, clever and passionate family lawyer is worth their weight in gold.
Independent legal advice
You should choose your representation independently of your ex-partner. It is not up to your ex-partner to guide you to a preferred lawyer; nor is it up to them to tell you that you do not need one. This is a very common theme, and if this is happening to you, it is disempowering, and it is a form of control, which is a form of domestic violence.
Be empowered by having clarity
Because the family law process is often unfamiliar and can be intimidating, it is vital that a lawyer puts you at ease by helping you understand what to expect. Just because your lawyer has been through a process hundreds of times, he or she shouldn’t take it for granted that you’ll feel comfortable with what is ahead of you on your family law journey. A good sign is if you leave an interview with a prospective lawyer feeling heard, informed and empowered.