Choosing the Right Family Law Attorney for Your Needs

Finding a family law attorney for your divorce, alimony, child custody or international matter is not so difficult; however, finding the right family law attorney for your personal situation can be much harder. Having the correct attorney to support you can make a difference both in the outcome of your dispute and how you fare this very emotional time of your life. Clearly, you want a relationship you can trust, but you also need an attorney who is serious about your case and listens to your needs.

There are hundreds of family law attorneys licensed in the Maryland and the District of Columbia areas. When it comes time for you to choose the right one, how do you make your decision?

We obviously believe and hope that your research will lead you to work with Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield. That said, we understand that this is an extremely personal decision, and one that is an inflection point in your divorce or other family law matter. Your attorney will be instrumental in listening to your goals, in guiding your decisions, and in advocating for your desired outcomes. Regardless of the facts of your personal situation, we have compiled some factors that we hope will be useful during the process of selecting and retaining your family law attorney. Consider the following:

How responsive is the attorney you wish to retain?

Admittedly, most law firms are eager to retain new clients and respond swiftly to initial inquiries from potential clients. If an attorney’s office does not get back to you promptly at the onset of your relationship, you may want to think twice about retaining them. If an attorney cannot be bothered to contact you when they are hoping you will hire them, they are unlikely to become more responsive once you have given them a retainer fee.

How long has the attorney been practicing family law?

Simply put, there is no substitute for experience. An attorney who has been handling divorces and custody matters for decades is almost certainly going to be more proficient than one who has been in practice for a year or two. Be advised, however, that an attorney can truthfully say, “I have been handling divorces for thirty years,” when he or she only takes a couple of straightforward uncontested cases each year. Therefore, it is always important to dig a little deeper and check the facts.

In addition to asking how long the attorney has been practicing family law, it is usually helpful to ask how many complex divorce and custody matters they have handled during their career. Obviously, all attorneys need to gain experience somehow, but your family law case is the foundation for your future; it shouldn’t be your attorney’s first learning experience.

What percentage of the attorney's practice is dedicated to family law?

It makes sense that someone who spends most of their time doing one thing will be better at that one thing as compared to someone whose work is less focused. After all, if you need brain surgery, you consult a neurosurgeon, not a general surgeon. Similarly, if you need a divorce, you should work with an attorney who concentrates their practice primarily, if not exclusively, in family law. This is especially true if you have complicating factors in your situation such as significant assets, international law considerations, domestic violence, business valuations, or contentious child custody issues.

Does the attorney have experience with specific issues of concern to you?

If your family law situation does have issues that make it more complex, you will want to ask the attorney if they have dealt with those issues before, how often they have dealt with the issues, and what outcomes they have achieved for clients in situations similar to yours. For instance, an attorney who has never handled an international divorce, a forensic custody evaluation, a business valuation or a custody dispute involving same-sex spouses might not be as aware of potential issues that can arise in such situations.

What is key to understand is that there is no such thing as a “routine” divorce or custody case, but even if your situation feels relatively straightforward, knowing that your attorney is experienced with complex situations should help you feel more confident that they can help you through yours.

Has the attorney litigated family law cases?

This is a bit of a trick question, as well over 90% of family law cases settle before trial. Most attorneys who concentrate their practice in family law do not try (litigate) a lot of cases. That said, significant trial experience is critical, and here’s why: an attorney who is uncomfortable or inexperienced in the courtroom may encourage a client to accept a less-than-optimal settlement in order to avoid a trial. Conversely, an experienced litigator will not encourage a settlement unless doing so is truly in their client’s best interests. While every family law litigant should hope to settle their case outside of the courtroom, it is critical to find a way to negotiate from a position of strength rather than weakness.

Even if you fully expect your case to settle, your attorney’s trial experience matters. If your attorney is more comfortable at trial than your spouse’s attorney, your attorney will likely have more leverage during settlement negotiations because they are willing to go to trial if the need arises. And if your case should be among the few that must end up at trial, you will be able to have confidence in your attorney’s advocacy, skill and experience.

What is the attorney's hourly rate?

This question is important, and not only for the obvious reason. It is rarely a good idea to work with the lowest-priced attorney you can find. Family law attorney fees can vary widely, and although a higher hourly rate is not a guarantee of higher quality representation, the rate charged generally reflects an attorney’s skill and experience. An attorney who cannot compete on ability has no choice but to compete on (apparent) cost.

If an attorney who charges a lower rate does so because they are less experienced, they may not end up saving you money at all. Your attorney’s fee is the attorney’s hourly rate multiplied by the amount of time they spend on your case. In other words, the hourly rate may be lower, but if it takes an attorney longer to accomplish a task because of a lack of experience or familiarity with the subject matter, you may end up paying significantly more. And, of course, you may end up with a worse outcome because of the attorney’s lack of experience.

While you are asking about an attorney’s hourly rates, ask the attorney what they do (and what you can do) to keep your ultimate legal fee manageable. An ethical attorney will not “churn” the file in order to generate more fees, and they will gladly let you know how you can help keep fees lower without sacrificing service.

A good family law attorney will try to give you homework and tasks to complete in furtherance of their engagement. They understand that the professional relationship upon which you are about to embark is best when there is active teamwork and the client participates actively in their case. A good family law attorney knows that the person who knows the facts best in your case is you, and they want your help to win your case.

How do you feel after talking with the attorney?

An attorney can look like a perfect match on paper and still not be the right one for you. Remember that you will be working closely with your attorney for months on matters that are of great personal, emotional, and financial import to your future. You must trust and feel comfortable working with your legal professional. Family law matters are stressful enough; dealing with your attorney should alleviate, not exacerbate, that stress.

Our attorneys are dedicated to the practice of family law and have decades of experience both outside and inside the courtroom. We are here for you and we do everything we can to help you get life back on track. When you hire us, you receive the help that you deserve throughout the entire process—both inside and outside of the courtroom. We encourage you to contact our office to schedule an initial consultation with Strickler, Platnick & Hatfield to learn how we can help you.