“What to Look For In Selecting a PA Divorce Lawyer” by Barbara J. Shah, Esquire

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I recently volunteered with a legal search service to help answer questions about PA divorces posted by PA residents seeking a divorce or trying to find out more information about divorces.   I have been doing this for several months, and the experience, together with my nearly 35 years of experience practicing law in PA, focusing largely on divorce law, I have arrived at several conclusions:

Most Pennsylvanians are ill-informed as to even the basic rudiments of PA divorce law. They have heard horror stories from their friends, family, or acquaintances, and they often fail to seek legal advice early on, when important decisions need to be made.

Many younger PA divorce-seekers do a lot of divorce research on-line, or they assist older divorce-seekers in finding information on-line.

Most of the on-line lawyer rating services are unreliable, in my opinion (I suppose to show that I’m “hip”, I should say IMHO, but I want everyone to understand me). We don’t know all of the lawyers in our area who do divorces, but we pretty much know who are the good ones.  We see high ratings of some lawyers on-line which are totally unjustified, in terms of our knowledge of their expertise in handling divorce matters.

Many divorce seekers (or seekers of divorce information) don’t know what to expect from lawyers during their consultation appointment, or thereafter.

It is virtually impossible to conduct an effective consultation appointment over the telephone, or in an internet chat; we need to look each other in the eye and gauge whether we are getting accurate information or whether the information we are giving the potential client is getting through. Some clients lie…

If a divorce lawyer is offering you a “free consultation,” they must not be busy enough; there may be a reason for this…

If the divorce lawyer has no support staff, or works out of his or her basement, maybe they are building up a practice (hey, I started by sharing law office space with an established lawyer), but bear in mind that it is likely they may not be available to you when needed, as they have to go to court, write pleadings, answer telephone messages, etc. all by themselves. Yes, voice mail and text messaging is handy, but if you have a burning question, it may be cold comfort to you.

As a corollary to the above, then, bear in mind that a lawyer whose fees appear to be “cheap” or much less expensive than others, may have insufficient support staff. Personnel and offices and computer systems cost money, but they make the lawyer much more available to answer important client questions and take action in emergencies.  If you don’t get a response within 24 hours to an urgent question, (it should be the same day), it brings a level of anxiety into the process which experienced lawyers want to avoid.

Just because a lawyer is expensive, however, it doesn’t mean that they are the lawyer for you. Ask around, find out how satisfied friends or relatives or co-workers have been with their divorce attorneys (or how impressed they were with the skill level of their spouse’s attorney).

The right lawyer for you will take in a great deal of information about you and your marriage, your children, and your spouse, and they will educate you on the divorce, support, and custody laws of Pennsylvania. They will tell you hard truths, truths you may not want to hear but need to know.

The right lawyer will have a sense of humor, be able to relate, but will not feel sorry for you. We must analyze the situation as the court would and work to develop a strategy to reach an outcome that is acceptable, in the long run. As changes occur, they will keep you informed and will modify the strategy, with your approval.

The right lawyer will keep you informed and will communicate with you regularly, usually by email, and will want your input and response to actions and communications in your case.

Your lawyer will charge you for all communications, telephone, email, written, etc., because he or she has nothing to “sell” but his or her time. Don’t expect them to work for free, particularly when they have an office, staff, and other overhead expenses.

Your lawyer will very likely know and hopefully have a cordial relationship with your spouse’s lawyer. Our job is not to hate or scorn the other side; our job is to get the best result for our client, and we have learned that cooperation, not flame-throwing, is the best way to achieve this with a minimum of expense.

It is possible but unlikely that you will be unhappily surprised by developments in your case, if you have been listening to your lawyer and following their instructions. Most experienced divorce lawyers are fairly good predictors of outcomes and are trying to save you attorney fees and anxiety by attempting to settle your case, along lines you have already discussed and are prepared for.

Your divorce lawyer is a valuable asset; make sure you have a written fee agreement which you understand, as required by ethics rules, and keep your account current with them.

If you hear someone complaining that divorce lawyers are money-grubbing thieves, it is possible that they have had a bad experience with their lawyer.  We have met many of those people, and we have performed case “rescue missions” more times that we can count.  Or it is possible that they had unreasonable expectations or are trying to get something for nothing.  Choose wisely.  Your future may depend on it.

 

 

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