Depending on where you live and where your case is filed, there may be many, many lawyers from which to choose…or only a few. If you live in a very small county, there may be an excellent lawyer that is very good, or you may have to look to a nearby town or city or even in some of the largest cities in Georgia to find a good lawyer to handle your Family Law case. Regardless of where you look, you should follow some simple guidelines in choosing a lawyer.
The type of legal matter is a factor. There are many lawyers who can handle very well simple Family Law matters such as Adoptions that are not contested. But litigated matters such as Divorce, Child Support, Child Custody, Paternity, and Legitimation cases require a Family Lawyer who handles Trials in Court. And the days of simple forms are virtually gone; Family Lawyers who handle Trials are also usually very well experienced in drafting agreements and documents that resolve issues, such as settlement agreements in divorce or other cases, parenting plans, court orders, pre-nuptial or post-nuptial agreements. These documents are no longer simple to get right and it pays to be sure your rights are protected in such documents, even if your case will be “uncontested.”
There are many online resources for finding lawyers. With some exceptions, most of these web sites are not truly “fair and impartial.” Sites that have ratings may help some, but don’t believe everything you read in ratings. It is not uncommon for disgruntled spouses to lash out at the lawyer that represented their spouse in a Divorce case, to include lying about the circumstances and even claiming that they were represented by their spouse’s lawyer. Web sites that allow comments or ratings make this all too easy.
That said, there are some online resources that can provide useful information and are not solely based on what a lawyer says about themselves or what others say. One is the Member Directory of the State Bar of Georgia. All lawyers licensed in Georgia are listed in this Directory. A listing for a lawyer will include any recent Bar Complaints against the lawyer. You can search by Family Law Section, City, and State.
Another site is what the lawyers know as Martindale-Hubbell, now simply Martindale. You can search by location or specialty. It includes a rating system for lawyers, which represents what lawyers say about other lawyers. Lawyers rate lawyers in 2 categories, legal ability (A,B,C) and professionalism and honesty (V or nothing). A lawyer with an AV rating is considered by his or her peers to be honest, professional, and one of the best in their practice area. A lawyer who does not have a V is not considered honest or professional. But do be aware of some things about this site. Lawyers must pay to be listed, and it is not cheap; a 2 lawyer firm will pay about $1,400.00 per year to have a listing. Some lawyers do not care about being a highly rated Martingale lawyer because they are not about “prestige.” Some excellent Family Lawyers are not listed because they don’t need to be listed to have a lot of work.
The American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers is composed of knowledgeable Family Lawyers who specialize in Family law and who have demonstrated experience that exceeds that of other Family Lawyers. Lawyers must apply to become members and then pay fees to join and remain members. The website for the Academy has listings of Georgia Family Lawyers who are members of the Academy. Click here. You can generally assume that these lawyers know what they are doing, will work hard, and are dedicated to doing their best.
Most lawyers depend on word of mouth for referrals, either clients, former clients, other lawyers, professionals such as accountants or counselors, or even spouses or parties that were on the other side in a case. It does not hurt to ask friends, family, or professionals about lawyers in your city or county or nearby. It’s generally a very good idea.
You are free to talk to as many lawyers as you like when choosing one to represent you in a Family Law matter. Some people recommend that you talk to a number to “interview” them before deciding on a lawyer to represent you in a contested case. This is not a bad idea, especially if your case will be filed in a large metropolitan area, since there will be many lawyers from which to choose. But in other places, it can cause you a lot of problems. Each lawyer with whom you talk will be unable to represent the other side. You may think that is a good thing, and you may even be told by some lawyers that you should talk to all the good Family Lawyers in town to “conflict them out,” but the reality is you may be shooting yourself in the foot.
Good lawyers know what they can competently handle, how to resolve cases and how to keep costs down in litigated cases. Bad lawyers can actually make it hard to resolve cases and can drive up each party’s costs. Just remember this: If you value an honest, professional, knowledgeable opinion from your lawyer, you probably want the same for your opposition. You want their lawyer to tell them the truth, not what your opposition wants to hear. Settling a litigated Family Law case necessarily involves compromise, on both sides, and a party who is not fully and truthfully informed often will not compromise.
Cases that can result in Trials can involve a lot more than paperwork and are very much “County Centric.” While you may think that your case won’t be complicated and won’t ever go to Trial, you cannot assume that. If there is anything to fight about, some parties will demand a Trial, no matter how trivial the issue(s) may seem. Look for a lawyer who routinely handles cases in the County where your case must be or is filed, and one who can handle a Trial, even a Jury Trial, in that County.
Experience is a big plus. But not always; knowledge, wisdom, understanding, diligence, and the willingness to work hard are far more important than age or the number of cases handled. An experienced lawyer who specializes in Family Law cases should have excellent knowledge of the law and all the rules that apply to Family Law matters. However there are older, very experienced, very good lawyers who don’t really know anything about how certain issues in Family Law cases work, such as Child Support or Parenting Plans, and are dependent on a secretary or non-lawyer for the documents that determine these issues. And even bad lawyers may have handled many, many cases, over a long period of time. There’s good experience and there’s bad experience.
A truly experienced Family Lawyer should be able to answer questions clearly and without hesitation and be able and willing to tell you what you should not do in a case. And a truly experienced Family Lawyer will tell you if they don’t know the answer to something.
The hourly rate a lawyer charges is usually based on their experience and will also be higher if they specialize. But a high hourly rate doesn’t necessarily mean a very experienced, specialized, very high hourly rate lawyer will cost you more. An inexperienced lawyer may have to spend a whole lot more time figuring things out and doing things, or worse, may let you agree to things you shouldn’t which cost you in the end, while the expensive, experienced lawyer will usually be much more efficient and will protect you from things you don’t think about, including telling you to avoid certain actions and to comply with certain things to avoid more legal fees.
Watch out for too many promises. Everyone wants to have a “winner” for their lawyer, but the truth is there is no such thing as a lawyer who “wins” every case, especially Family Law cases. The best lose cases. Not because they don’t work hard and know what they are doing, but because Family Law cases can take on a life of their own and because any decision by a Judge (or Jury) is likely to be a compromise. My Dad used to say that the “best” result in a Divorce case is one that makes both the Wife and the Husband mad, and he was right.
A Really Good Family Lawyer will tell you what to expect in your walk through the legal system, how things get done, and may even provide you with some ideas on what outcome to expect, but will not promise you the moon. A great lawyer will tell you the truth even if you don’t like it and refuse to tell you only what you want to hear.
You Get What You Pay For. But not always; hiring a lawyer is not like buying a car. You don’t necessarily get more bells and whistles with the most expensive lawyer. You may not get a poor result with a cheap lawyer. You don’t even always get the result you want with an expensive lawyer. Most Family Law cases are simply difficult to predict or control; there are just too many variables. So it’s important that you look for and hire a lawyer who can be flexible in working on your case and who will know when it’s time to spend what it takes or when it’s time to consider alternatives to a Trial and, when the time comes, is willing to put in the effort required.
Be wary of a lawyer who charges you next-to-nothing up front and doesn’t consistently bill you. He or she may not be willing to put in the work to go the extra mile for you or bring their best efforts to your situation. In this sense, you will be getting what you have paid for, very little.
Be wary of a lawyer who tells you that your case will only cost you a certain, seemingly low amount in fees. Don’t decide not to talk to the widely known best Family or Divorce Lawyer simply because you think they charge too much.
And be wary of hiring a lawyer who does not routinely go to court to prepare documents to settle a Divorce or other Family Law matter because “it’s just forms.” While there are certainly occasions when this can work, if the issues are indeed very simple, increasingly this will not work. Things have gotten much more complicated in recent years, especially in cases where minor children are involved.