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Choosing a Matrimonial Attorney - A Mediator’s Perspective
Whether you choose to mediate or litigate, in all likelihood, you will still require the services of an attorney to review your mediated agreement, prepare the property settlement agreement, and file for your divorce. I get numerous phone calls asking for referrals to attorneys (by the way, not a bad way to get a good referral!). My usual answer is that often, the challenge is finding the right attorney for your case, and that you really need to do your homework before choosing a matrimonial attorney.
I suggest you start by preparing a potential list of lawyers from names provided by relatives and friends; the best source for professional service providers comes from satisfied clients. You can call your local bar association and chamber of commerce for additional names. You can also check you local mediation site for a list of attorney mediators. In New Jersey, 60% of the mediators with the New Jersey Association of Professional Mediators (www.njapm.org) are also attorneys.
It is recommended that you interview at least three law firms before choosing an attorney. Many attorneys provide free initial consultations or will ask for only a nominal fee. Explain when you are setting up the initial consultation that you wish to obtain a sound evaluation of your legal situation, and to see if you are comfortable about working together. Bring all pertinent written information with you such as last year's tax return, bank account and brokerage statements, mortgage statements and recent credit card bills.
Based on the collective wisdom of colleagues, here are some areas you may want to focus on during the interview:
The late Elaine Majewski, an advocate for divorce reform, offered the following clues you should be aware of at the initial interview:
Were you received at the appointed hour or kept waiting?
Did the attorney presented an outward appearance of neatness and good grooming?
Did the attorney discuss the fee arrangement with you up-front?
Was the lawyer a clock-watcher?
Did the attorney leave the room frequently during the interview or permit phone calls?
If the case appears to be adversarial in nature, Majewski also suggested that you might want to observe the attorney in a courtroom setting to see how he/she handles themselves, and how the judges react to him/her. Find out when the attorney will be in court and sit in and observe.
She also suggested that you could look up the attorneys rating at Martindale-Hubbell. Additionally, inquire whether you can speak to previous clients; references will help you learn more about an attorney's real strengths and weaknesses. If you do not feel comfortable with the lawyers you interview, shop around some more. Don't settle because you are in a hurry.
It is important the lawyer you choose is open and responsive to your needs, and that you feel comfortable that your case will be prepared and handled property. Selecting the wrong lawyer can cost you untold aggravation and expense. You are paying the bills and you will have to live the results. So be a smart consumer and do your due diligence before you make this important decision.
If the divorce is being filed under one of the seven fault grounds (including extreme cruelty, adultery, abandonment, substance or alcohol addiction, institutionalization, deviant sexual conduct and incarceration), the 18 month separation period, required for a no-fault divorce, is waived. However, each ground for divorce has its own stipulations.
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