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For any number of reasons, you may have lost confidence in the lawyer you hired to handle your Massachusetts divorce. Maybe your divorce lawyer missed a deadline, or perhaps he neglected to keep you informed about your case. Maybe you feel like you have been misled or overcharged by your attorney, a person you believed would represent your interests above all others. Whatever the reason, something has gone amiss in your professional relationship. Like with marriage, sometimes attorney-client relationships do not work out like the parties had hoped they would.
Whether you have just hired an attorney for the fourth time or are a litigation newbie, selecting the right lawyer for your case is an important choice. When a divorce lawyer agrees to represent you, a two-way relationship commences. Both parties share the same goal: to reach a beneficial outcome to your divorce. To achieve this end, both parties must act responsibly and respectfully towards each other, but also have a clear understanding of the other’s needs and expectations. While you should expect that your lawyer will zealously, competently, and ethically represent you, your attorney-client relationship is a two-way street.
The following strategies will help you in hiring—and if need be, firing—a divorce attorney and maintaining a successful relationship.
Choosing the best divorce lawyer in Boston, MA for your needs can be daunting, especially when you don’t know where to begin. Selecting an attorney is one of the most important steps in the divorce process, and finding the right lawyer for you can be tricky.
Determine what you need.
You probably know all too well by now that divorce is an emotional, complicated journey chockfull of twists and turns—turns which you need an expert to help you navigate. It is crucial that you feel comfortable with the guide you choose. Your relationship with your attorney should be one of openness, mutual trust, and confidence. Find an attorney with whom you feel at ease discussing personal, sensitive matters with candor and sincerity. For example, some women prefer to disclose personal details to a female attorney.
Like any wise consumer, you need to do your homework before making an informed decision. Look into lawyers who have experience in the circumstances of your case. Do you need to retain the services of a seasoned litigator? Does your MA divorce case involve complex custody issues? Are you looking at the division of a family business? Identify the significant or particular issues of your case and find someone with expertise in those areas. Perhaps, instead, you prefer an attorney with a general range of experience to tackle anything that comes your way.
Look in the right places.
Do not limit yourself to Google searches and Yelp reviews. Talk to people you trust. Ask friends and family members who have navigated the divorce process. You might have a contact who used an attorney for a case similar to yours. Enlist dependable friends who have navigated the divorce process. On the other hand, if you would rather embark on this journey without any input from the peanut gallery, look into local resources like bar associations or legal services plans.
If you have attorneys in your life, ask them about the reputation of other lawyers. Attorney friends can provide information about a fellow lawyer’s skills, habits, and level of competence that you cannot find in an internet search. You might even want to conduct a background check.
Research a lawyer’s disciplinary records.
If you want to take things a step further, ask your state bar for information on your potential divorce attorney. Contact the lawyer disciplinary agency in your state to verify that an attorney is in good standing. Most states regulators allow the public to access information about whether a lawyer has been disciplined for an ethics violation.
There are two things to remember if you choose to take this route: first, family law is a common practice area for complaints. Divorce and other family matters are emotional and high-stress, so it is likely that any given family law attorney will have a certain number of prior complaints under his/her belt, especially if that lawyer has been practicing for a while. Second, your state regulator probably does not keep track of legal malpractice claims or of how often clients complain about an attorney’s fees. Be warry of attorneys who have recently been sanctioned or suspended.
Learn what to look for.
Research whether your possible lawyer communicates regularly with his/her clients. Look into whether he/she is honest, fair, and effective. What additional costs will be included in your lawyer fees, e.g., filing and copy fees? Does the lawyer achieve promised results? What is his/her track record? Does he/she have any special skills or certifications? Keep in mind that every case is different, so you should not expect to obtain the same outcome or pay the same amount as other clients. Do thorough research so you can weigh your options.
Really think about the cost of hiring a divorce attorney.
Beyond your attorney’s experience, you might want to consider cost. Divorce commonly requires people to tighten the purse strings. Consider a lawyer with whom you can stay within budget. On the other hand, perhaps money is no object for you. Either way, if you are unsure about how to proceed, or if your case becomes the least bit complicated, you must be able to consult with your lawyer about protecting your financial interests.
Inquire into your lawyer’s fee structure.
Does your lawyer offer a fixed fee or bill you for every hour he/she spends on your case? It is crucial to get this information upfront. Can your lawyer offer a quote for each phase of your case? If you prefer that expenses do not exceed a set maximum amount, are you able to establish a cap fee or budget in the hourly billing model? Ask about charges, fees, rates, and retainers. Also, express any concerns you may have about paying for your lawyer’s services so that he/she can help you determine how to finance your divorce.
Unless your fee agreement specifically states that you will be charged a flat fee, your lawyer will not be able to guarantee how much his/her representation will cost you. Sometimes clients find themselves in a position where they cannot afford to continue paying their attorney, particularly when they do not first seriously consider the cost. Just like when your cable shuts off when you fail to pay the bill, you might suffer the same consequence with your legal representation. Speak to your attorney about financial concerns. Perhaps you can establish a budget or set up a payment plan.
Ask about additional costs your attorney expects will be involved.
While it is virtually impossible to accurately predict the total cost of a divorce before the ball gets rolling, your lawyer can help size up the price tag. You can expect an array of possible third-party costs such as court reporter fees, private investigators, filing fees, physicians, psychologists, process server costs, expert witnesses, and forensic accountants. An experienced attorney should be able to give you rough estimates of expenses to prepare you for the financial implications of your divorce.
Be focused, prepared, and organized.
Keep in mind that your Boston divorce attorney is a professional providing professional services. Unless you have arranged to pay a flat fee, most attorneys charge on an hourly basis, so it is in your best interest to be as prepared and organized as possible to trim your legal bill. Understand that you will be charged for every meeting, drop-in visit, email, phone call, and task or question you throw your lawyer’s way. This includes the lawyer’s support staff. Some lawyers charge additional fees for off-hour or weekend communications.
Being organized with your questions and concerns will save you money and both you and your lawyer precious time. Except in cases of an emergency, give your attorney some time to respond. Avoid calling or emailing several times in one day. Always keep in the back of your mind that you will be charged for every email and call.
If you know you are going to require more reliable communication, either make an appointment beforehand to speak with your attorney, or arrange regular calls. This will allow you to save all of your communication, questions, and updates for planned conversations. If you have the urge to reach out with an inconsequential update or random thought, consider saving it for your monthly meeting. Plan to have all of your burning questions answered at one time, rather than sending rapid-fire emails to your attorney.
Other tips include brainstorming what you want to talk about during your initial consultation. Compile a list of questions and predetermined discussion points. Take notes on meetings and interactions for your records. Try to consolidate your questions and concerns. Stay focused in communication with your lawyer—that means saving drawn-out, emotional conversations about your divorce for a friend, family member, or therapist. While your lawyer might offer a sympathetic ear, you are most productive as a pair when fixated on getting down to business. Save the small talk for a less-expensive listener.
Being prompt, prepared, and focused throughout the divorce process will allow your lawyer to concentrate on what is essential without breaking the bank. Think about the important issues, gather relevant paperwork, and do what you can on your end before you find yourself resenting your attorney for the increasing number of costly hours he/she must spend working on your case.
Read the fee agreement.
Some clients are taken by surprise when they receive a legal bill for reasons as simple and preventable as not having carefully read the legal fee agreement. It’s normal to want to skip over the fine print, but almost every lawyer will—and are often legally required to—supply a fee agreement detailing the scope of the representation along with the following:
- how you will be charged,
- the parameters of your attorney-client relationship,
- how your attorney-client relationship can be terminated,
- which documents to provide,
- how to communicate with your lawyer,
- how your lawyer will deliver updates, documents, and changes,
- your responsibility to keep your lawyer informed throughout your case,
- your obligations to pay fees, etc.
Failing to carefully read this document could leave you in the dark regarding a significant amount of information.
Communicate with your MA divorce lawyer about fee disputes.
If you are confused about or do not agree with certain aspects of your legal bill, do not let things fester or confront your lawyer with guns blazing. Calmly and openly communicate with your lawyer. Ask for an explanation as to why certain fees appear on your bill and how they align with the terms of your fee agreement and the Rules of Professional Conduct. If you are still concerned that your attorney is being unreasonable or that he/she changed the terms of your agreement without notice, look into a free arbitration program. Most state bar associations have programs for precisely this purpose, and your lawyer is obligated to participate if you submit a petition to arbitrate.
Take advantage of the initial consultation.
Your new attorney might come highly recommended with a squeaky-clean record and hundreds of five-star reviews, but you should still do your homework before signing on. After looking into his/her qualifications and experience, meet with the attorney to discuss a possible relationship face-to-face. An initial consultation is an excellent and convenient opportunity to obtain as much information as possible to determine whether you and this lawyer are a good fit. It is helpful to make a list of questions and talking points prior to your consultation. The more questions you pose to a new attorney, the fewer surprises down the road.
Ask about the details of a divorce attorney’s experience.
While some divorce cases seem cut-and-dry with few disputed issues, no children, and limited financial assets, other cases are exceedingly complex. Based on where your case falls on the spectrum, you might feel comfortable working with a lawyer of a certain skill level or area of experience.
There are specializations within the area of family law. Depending on the issues surrounding your case, you might require that your attorney have particular experience, for instance in the fields of custody law, international divorce, or finance. Ask your lawyer if and how these issues apply to your case and whether he/she is knowledgeable in them.
Do not hesitate to ask questions and evaluate your attorney regarding his/her specialties and training. How long has he been practicing this area of law? How many cases does she manage? How much experience does he have within your state? Has she dealt with cases that are similar to yours? Does he manage high-conflict divorce cases? How many divorce cases has she taken to court? How full is his plate at the moment? Do not hold back. You are your lawyer will go through a lot together, so might as well get comfortable now.
Learn upfront what you can expect in terms of communication.
Your attorney should be able to be candid with you about how often you can hope to speak to him/her within a certain amount of time. Naturally, some attorneys are more communicative and available than others. You might consider asking your attorney his/her preferred method of communication to ensure you get a response more quickly. Regardless of what you are looking for in an attorney-client relationship, it will save you both future headaches and surprises to know in advance what to expect.
Be prepared to ask the hard questions.
While you probably already looked into the answers to these questions, go ahead and ask the attorney the tough questions, e.g., what happens if I cannot pay my legal bills? Have you been confronted with any malpractice claims within the past several years? Have you had to pay sanctions? The attorney might be taken aback by these questions or lack the information for a comprehensive response. This is not necessarily a red flag because these questions are rarely posed. A clear red flag, however, is if he/she declines to answer these questions.
Know what to expect in the attorney-client relationship.
There are Rules of Professional Conduct that regulate every attorney’s conduct and require them to tell the truth—no matter what. This includes making sure their clients and witnesses tell the truth as well. Despite what you might look for in an attorney, every lawyer is restricted by these Rules with respect to his/her case strategy and what arguments he/she can make.
The Rules limit lawyers to advancing arguments for which there is a “good faith basis” in the law and facts. Therefore, despite how much money you think you deserve in alimony, and despite how you might want your spouse banished from the tri-state area, your lawyer might have no choice but to break it to you that there is no legal basis for your banishment claim. Keep in mind that your attorney is bound by the law. Regardless of how much your lawyer wants to help you, he/she cannot advance a position simply because you wish it.
Your layer is your advocate—not your friend.
While your lawyer will be empathetic to your situation and represent you with zeal, he/she is not going to respond to your email at quarter-to-midnight, do your casework for you, or babysit your children. Your lawyer was hired to offer legal advice and experience, represent you, defend your legal interests, and negotiate terms on your behalf. Some lawyers go above and beyond, while others remain strictly professional. If you are expecting a new BFF to help get you through a custody battle, you might want to rethink your position. Further, your lawyer is bound by the law and the court to be an objective representative—not a friend.
Remember that you are one of many clients.
While you might believe your lawyer owes you his/her undivided attention, you are likely not his/her only client. You should not expect to be able to speak with your divorce lawyer at a moment’s notice, or for your lawyer to drop everything if you decide to pop in for a surprise visit. This does not mean your divorce attorney is neglectful or uninterested—it simply means that your attorney is a busy professional who reserves his/her attention for scheduled interactions.
If your attorney does not return a phone call for a day or two, he/she might be spending all day in court. If your attorney does not immediately answer your emails, he/she is probably in a meeting or deposition for another case. While your divorce might presently be the center of your universe, try to be understanding of your lawyer’s demanding schedule. See your attorney as hardworking rather than inattentive.
Schedule meetings and conversations in advance (except in emergency situations). Make efficient use of your time and money by providing complete and accurate information to your attorney. Do what you can to keep your attorney from having to ask you more than once for certain information.
Prepare yourself for the idea that your divorce will take longer—and therefore be more expensive—than expected.
Your divorce attorney might give you an estimated cost or timeframe based on his/her experience, but unless the legal services are limited to particular tasks, no lawyer can guarantee specific results. If your lawyer is optimistic about the outcome of your case, try not to fault her if things do not go exactly according to plan. Your case is not going to be the same as your friend’s divorce, and no one can control or predict with 100% certainty what the opposing party will do. The more information you give to your lawyer, the more likely you will be able to anticipate and challenge your soon-to-be-ex-spouse’s tactics.
Your lawyer cannot guarantee results.
This is an important point for two reasons: first, you want to remain realistic about what to expect from your representation. Sometimes, despite how excellent, zealous, and professional an attorney’s representation is, it is possible for things not to go as planned. Second, never hire an attorney who claims to guarantee a certain result. They are deceiving you and/or himself.
Talking to others about your lawyer’s counsel may waive your attorney-client privilege.
You might want third party feedback or you might be simply catching up with friends. No matter to whom and via which platform, talking to others could risk you waiving your attorney-client privilege. Even worse, the person to whom you spilled the beans could be subpoenaed to testify about your conversation. You should also keep in mind that your lawyer cannot ethically speak to anyone who is not a client unless the client gives informed consent. That means you should not expect to have a friend or family member relay or gather information from your attorney on your behalf.
Court deadlines are important and mandatory.
Deadlines are not only important for keeping things running smoothly between parties and with the judge, but the judge could sanction you for failing to comply with deadlines. Divorce is not enjoyable or comfortable for any party involved, but procrastinating your responsibilities, refusing to face the inevitable, or failing to confront stressful situations will cost you more than if you buckle down and reply to your attorney’s request for information. In fact, be as prompt as you are able in responding to your lawyer’s requests. If you delay in providing documents or information, your lawyer will be forced to hastily put together your case, if he/she is not forced to miss a deadline altogether. Even worse, if you ignore repeated requests for information, you might find yourself out of a lawyer.
If you cannot locate certain information, or if you do not fully understand a request, speak up. Reach out to your lawyer or his/her support staff with any questions. Ask where you can find the information, or why they need it in the first place—but whatever you do, do not ignore the request altogether.
Tell your Boston divorce lawyer all the facts and truthfully.
Tell your lawyer everything, and honestly. It might come as a surprise to you that failing to truthfully disclose even the most seemingly-insignificant detail to your lawyer can damage your case. An omission or white lie will do more than make you and your lawyer look bad; your lawyer cannot legally and ethically tell a lie to the judge or opposing party. If your ex-spouse does not call out the lie first, your lawyer will be obligated to correct the statement in which he/she inadvertently gave false information or neglected to inform of a material fact—even if you insist otherwise.
You cannot hide “bad” information pertaining to your divorce, so keeping it from your lawyer is only hurting yourself. Be open and honest with your attorney so that he/she can deal with the “bad” information early and devise a strategy that benefits you. Even if your lawyer could keep from disclosing material information, chances are that the information will quickly become a prominent aspect of the opposing attorney’s case.
Beyond the strategy and politics of the divorce process, telling the truth can be a matter of safety. Be open with your lawyer if you are concerned about your physical or emotional wellbeing or that of your children. You might feel timid, embarrassed, or even unsafe divulging this sort of information, but your lawyer can help you take legal action to prevent your soon-to-be-ex-spouse from having any contact with your family.
Let your lawyer be the lawyer.
First and foremost, do not try to control everything. You might want to revise the text of a document or the way your lawyer corresponds with your ex-spouse and his/her attorney. Keep in mind that while clients decide on objectives, attorneys decide the means to obtain those objectives. Allow yourself to benefit from your lawyer’s expertise.
Despite what many believe, clients are unacquainted with the most effective legal strategies for a case. Through a logistical lens, clients usually do not know whether extensions of time can be granted, which depositions to take, when pleadings and motions need to be filed, etc. Things like rules of civil procedure and deadlines are lawyer business—let your lawyer take care of business. Additionally, the more you try to manage every document and make demands about your case, the more expensive your legal bill will become. Trust your attorney to do all in his/her legal and ethical power to help you achieve your objective.
So, you are still unhappy with your divorce lawyer?
If you are still truly unhappy with your lawyer and his/her staff, consider that it may be time to find alternative representation. If the firm fails to return your calls for several business days, neglects to communicate important information, or is generally rude or nonresponsive, and you have been truly patient, understanding, and communicative, it may be time to terminate their services.
If a lawyer’s conduct falls below the standards of the Rules of Professional Conduct, he/she can be disciplined in various ways. A lawyer might be reprimanded either publicly or privately. The lawyer may be suspended, i.e., have his/her license to practice law taken away for a period of time. Lastly, and most severely, a lawyer can be disbarred, i.e., entirely stripped of his/her license to practice law in that jurisdiction.
There is a difference between things not going your way and actual ethical violations.
If after all is said and done you still find that your lawyer has lied to a judge, missed deadlines, neglected to share important information about your case, and has been generally M.I.A., it may be time to report his/her behavior to the state bar regulators. This would be the extreme measure, so be sure to communicate with your attorney first about your concerns and intentions.
Keep in mind that reporting your lawyer will not automatically remove him/her from your case—you still have to take affirmative action to terminate your lawyer’s services. Remember that when you fire a lawyer, you can still be charged a reasonable amount for the work he/she has already done.Do not threaten your attorney.
In this day and age of highly-valued online reviews, you might think that threatening to negatively review your attorney online will motivate him/her to represent you more to your liking. Naturally, these threats might have the polar opposite effect. Realistically, an angry vent on Yelp or Avvo will not get you your money back, nor will it remove your lawyer from your case. Instead, it will get a few views from the general public, and simply make you look unreasonable or disgruntled.
More frustrated clients will threaten to file a bar grievance. It would be within your lawyer’s discretion to fire you if he/she perceives such a threat, which will not be taken lightly. Of course, if you have genuine concerns about your attorney’s conduct, first talk to him/her, and then talk to bar regulators if need be.
You lawyer must withdraw from representing you in certain situations.
As mentioned above, your lawyer must withdraw if you threaten to file a bar complaint. Other situations include a client’s failure to pay, destroying evidence, insisting he/she lie in court, claiming that the lawyer committed malpractice, and demanding the lawyer pursue a claim that is not based in law or illegal.
Help foster a prosperous attorney-client relationship.
Save yourself the headaches. Do your homework before hiring a divorce attorney. Be open and honest with your lawyer. Allow your lawyer to do his/her job as your professional advocate and pursue the best possible outcome for you. And like any other relationship, communicate. If you have any questions about your case or concerns about what you attorney is doing, talk to him/her.
Your lawyer understands better than most how emotional and challenging this time in your life is. With research, understanding, professionalism, responsiveness, and communication, you have the power to make this a truly successful relationship.