Getting a divorce can be a lonely, overwhelming process. Navigating it alone can make it even more frightening. If you, like a lot of women, experienced a power challenge in your marriage (perhaps your spouse handled all the finances, or was a bully, or hid things, or lied), these are still more reasons why you might choose to hire a divorce lawyer to help you navigate the legal process. A good divorce attorney, advocating just for you, can make you feel less alone and even change the outcome of your divorce. This article will provide you with suggestions and advice on how to find a good divorce lawyer to fit your story and your unique needs.
1. Identify Your Needs
Your ultimate goal is to get divorced. However, while you begin your search for a divorce attorney, you must know precisely what you want out of your divorce. Different family law attorneys might specialize in various family law subject areas. Is child custody the most crucial issue to you? Do you and your spouse own a house together? Or is it a new marriage with little to no property to divide? Perhaps you are looking to pursue a legal separation or a post-nup? These are all areas that an attorney might specialize in, and knowing what is most important to you will allow you to hire the right attorney for your situation and choose the right type of divorce model.
For your information, in general, there are four types of divorces: DIY (or Do-It-Yourself, for Uncontested Divorces), the Traditional Model (for Uncontested or Contested divorces), Mediation (for Uncontested Divorces), and the Collaborative Model (for Uncontested Divorces).
To understand more we encourage you to read “The 4 Types of Divorce and How to Know Which One’s Right for You.”
And make sure you understand the difference between a Contested and Uncontested Divorce.
Another factor to consider is the complexity of your divorce. The nature of the relationship between you and your spouse can lead to what kind of attorney you might want. Like subject areas, different lawyers can specialize in various types of representation. You might consider a lawyer who does mediation if the power is equally shared between you and your spouses (i.e. both of you understand your finances, and there is no abuse or hiding of information or deception in your relationship.) If you have children and want to focus on coparenting, you might want a lawyer focused on an amicable divorce, or a collaborative divorce. If you know your divorce will be highly contentious and likely go to trial, you might select a lawyer who is both a good negotiator (so you settle out of court) but who also has lots of courtroom experience in case you need to go there. Knowing what you need in your situation and what type of personality your spouse is, will ensure you go into your lawyer search in a more defined way.
SAS Tip: We suggest that all women, no matter their circumstances, consult with a Traditional Divorce attorney first. Hearing what your rights are, what you are entitled to as an individual woman/wife/mother, and discussing the biggest issues in your story will help you decide which type of divorce would be right for you. This will better advance your understanding of your particular needs before you elect for mediation or a collaborative divorce (a particular type of divorce model).
2. Gather Referrals
One way to research potential lawyers is by seeking out referrals. There are two popular types of referrals: social and professional.
Social referrals come from friends and family members who might have gone through the divorce process. Having someone you know and respect vouch for a particular lawyer can be comforting. Plus, they might have some insight on how to find a good divorce lawyer. However, with social referrals, be mindful of your situation versus the referring friend’s situation. This is your divorce, and you may have different goals from a friend or family member who just went through the process. Additionally, you should be mindful of a friend or acquaintance who might not be in the headspace to share her thoughts on her attorney objectively but instead uses your query as an avenue to rehash her grievances.
The other way a referral might work is through a professional referral. This is when a professional you trust refers you to a family law attorney they might know and respect. Professionals often work together closely and appreciate other professionals, so a trusted doctor, accountant, or therapist might be able to assist you in finding a good divorce lawyer.
SAS TIP: Always ask your referral source if they know the name and number of at least three potential divorce lawyers because one lawyer might be retired, not taking new clients, out of your price range, etc.; if so, you still have other options.
Other professionals might also refer you to professional lawyer organizations. Organizations like the American Academy of Matrimonial Attorneys, the American Bar Association, your state’s and city’s bar association, and local legal aid centers can refer you to individual attorneys. This may give you a starting point for the search process.
If you are just getting your ducks in a row as you contemplate divorce, learn what other healthy steps you could be taking and read “36 Things to Do If You Are Thinking About Divorce.“
3. Do Your Research
Divorce laws vary from state to state. When looking for a divorce lawyer, you’ll want to talk to one in your state of residence. What’s more, search for one in your general vicinity so it’s easier to connect with them ongoing if you need. You can do this by searching by city, county, and state. A regional search will allow you to view qualified attorneys in the area before deciding on a few to contact. Searching for attorneys, or vetting the names you’ve been given online also allows for the possibility of reading reviews and testimonies by previous clients.
SAS Tip: If you are really interested in a lawyer, you might consider asking the attorney for peer or client referrals if you cannot easily find reviews. You want to ensure that your lawyer is known for professionalism and experience in the field – and hearing from those who’ve had firsthand experience with them can give you vital insight.
4. Set Up Interviews
After you have set your goals, researched potential attorneys, and talked to the safe and appropriate people in your life, it is time to set up a meeting with potential attorneys. Make sure you prepare for each meeting. Read our “Questions to Ask a Divorce Attorney at a Consultation” to know what to bring into that meeting, what questions to ask, and how to make the most of your time, getting critical information and the education you need, and deserve.
SAS TIP: Some attorneys offer free consultations before hiring them. So, make sure to check out their websites to see if free consultations exist and for how long the consultation is. If it’s only 30 minutes, you’ll need more time. And by the way, free consultations are not always the norm, so consider consultation costs when considering legal expenses.
As a result of the pandemic, many lawyers these days will conduct your consultation via Zoom if you wish. While that is possible, and very convenient, we find it’s better to meet with one face to face, so you can read their responses and body language better and get a view of their office and its professional atmosphere.
Don’t just jump to hire the first lawyer you meet either. You should aim to talk with at least three lawyers – if you have the resources. This way you have a higher chance of hearing different perspectives on your situation and finding the one that is right for you. Meeting multiple people will help you steer clear of lawyers who attempt to sweet talk you to get you in the door of their practice by claiming they handle divorces when in reality, that is not their practice. (Some lawyers practice several different types of law.
Go for one that is strictly matrimonial or a family law attorney who handles divorce.) Interviewing lawyers in advance can ensure they know how to navigate the family law sphere and that they will not over-complicate the divorce process. Having confidence and trust that your attorney knows the law is crucial to a successful divorce process.
We hear a lot of talk and fear about lawyers’ costs, which is natural, too. But a word to the wise, make sure you understand why it’s not in your interest to look for cheap divorce lawyers.
5. Listen to Red Flags
Attorneys work in the field of business. Sometimes some attorneys only want to make a sale and do not have your interests at heart. Other times you’ll be interviewed by a founding partner of the law firm who does the “intake” but you’ll end up working with another lawyer in the firm. Make sure you ask about that. As well, be careful of lawyers who are willing to tell you anything you want to hear to close the deal. A good attorney can realistically walk you through the divorce process and your best and worst-case scenarios. You’ll want to work with an attorney who is respectful, understanding, a good negotiator, and professional in their work. If they are dismissing your questions, talking down to you, or about other divorce attorneys or clients, there is a high chance they will do the same to you later on.
If you are beginning a divorce, you’ll want to check out this complete collection of “55 Must Do’s On Your Modern Divorce Checklist.”
Additionally, think about your attorney’s ability to communicate. Are they constantly on their phone or email during their consultation in a way that makes you feel devalued? Are they unresponsive to your texts, calls, or emails? They may have too many clients, or not enough administrative help to service their clients well. Or worse, they may not value you or your time and won’t be able to give your case the attention it deserves. You also want to read their disposition in your initial meeting. You don’t want someone condescending or lacking compassion to walk you through one of the most challenging times of your life.
SAS TIP: Trust your gut. If it is telling you there is something off with a lawyer you have just met, it’s likely true.
6. Make Your Choice
Finally, after all your diligent research and vetting, it’s time to choose your lawyer. This decision represents who you are and who will support and fight for you in the divorce. This attorney is a professional and an expert in their field. They make you feel like “they’ve got your back.” Knowing that your lawyer is by your side, fighting for your best interest is important. The right lawyer will walk you through the process and prioritize you and your wellbeing. Choosing the right divorce attorney is an important decision. It is likely a choice that will dictate much of your future life. However, with diligent research, goal setting, vetting, and listening to your gut, you will find someone who is better equipped at supporting you then simply grabbing someone off the internet.
Elizabeth Newland is a third-year law student in Chicago who is committed to children and family rights. She aims to work in a family-related non-profit firm after graduation.
Since 2012, SAS for Women is entirely dedicated to the unexpected challenges women face while considering a divorce and navigating the divorce experience and its confusing afterward. SAS offers women six FREE months of email coaching, action plans, checklists, and support strategies for you, and your future. Join our tribe and stay connected. (more below)
*We support same-sex marriages. For the sake of simplicity in this article, however, we refer to your spouse as your “husband” or a “he.”