ONE SIZE DOESN’T FIT ALL: FINDING THE RIGHT LAWYER WHEN THINGS GO WRONG
By Brendan Hammer
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
By Brendan Hammer
PHOTOGRAPHY BY ROBIN SUBAR
Recently, I needed a new barber and so I asked for recommendations. I also looked online for people with strong reviews. The gentleman I went to was amiable, professional, and highly recommended. But the experience just wasn’t great. We didn’t exactly hit it off, the conversations were stilted, and the cut was a bit underwhelming to be honest. It might sound absurd, but I don’t think he understood what I really wanted. I had to ditch this decent but lackluster barber and I now go to someone who makes it seem like he’s been cutting my hair since childhood.
Many people find lawyers the same way they try out restaurants, hotels, hair stylists, dentists, designers, and trainers—on the basis of a recommendation. Typically, a neighbor, family member, friend, colleague, or parent from school passes along a name. And we take those recommendations on a kind of faith. With lawyers, we may interview the person and ask some questions, but we are relying heavily on the experience and validation of a third party. That experience of our acquaintance was a function of many unique factors, not all of them rational, not all of them generally applicable, and many of them not applicable to our own specific circumstances, finances, personalities or needs.
In divorce, certain attributes are necessary for a lawyer—but they are not all sufficient for the client. At a minimum, a good family law attorney should be experienced, knowledgeable, creative, and professionally well regarded. But in a divorce or custody case, you are entrusting everything you value to a third party. Your financial future and the future of your children are all on the line. It is both a legal and emotional process. You will spend countless hours emailing, talking, and on Zoom with the lawyer. She or he will come to know more about you and your family than almost anyone who is not a family member, close friend, or therapist. The relationship between an attorney and a client, therefore, is a critical one.
Unfortunately, it can be very hard to tell whether your lawyer will be a good fit. If I have any advice for people contemplating the services of a matrimonial law attorney, it is do your homework and also pay close attention to your communication. Obtain as much data as possible from as many sources as possible. The experiences of others are not irrelevant, they are simply insufficient. Next, the initial consultation should be an opportunity for you to learn as much about your potential attorney as it is for that professional to learn about you and your case. Does the lawyer interrupt? Demonstrate understanding? Ask follow-up questions or probe for understanding and context? Does the lawyer talk only about himself or herself? Do you hear only war stories and accolades? Do you feel you are being lectured? Does the person tell you only what you want to hear? Does the lawyer over-confidently tell you time frames, dollar amounts, and outcomes without having detailed facts? Are you being “sold” on the lawyer or are you learning what it would be like to work with him or her? Can the lawyer explain things in a way that you understand? At root, do you feel like you want to spend a year of your life working closely with this person?
Critically, and if so, will this person be your primary interface or will another Partner or an Associate be assigned to serve that role? Will the lawyer personally handle your matter in court or in mediation? If not, why not? Most importantly, what is the level of emotional intelligence that she or he demonstrates in talking to you? It can be hard to process all of these potentially relevant data points in the conference and maybe a follow up chat is needed. Do not feel embarrassed about asking for one or even in explaining what concerns or questions you have. There are many family law attorneys and it can be hard to find the person best suited to represent you. We are all unique and each have emphases, outlooks, philosophies, and approaches that differentiate us from our peers in the law. For almost all of us, before we met our spouse or partner, we dated other people. We were finding the right fit. We did not simply rely on the “reviews” of our spouse’s former romantic intimates. Similarly, we should not think twice about consulting a wide array of lawyers before “committing” to one. In the end, you must feel comfortable, secure, and confident that you are in good hands and also that the person you retain will be able to work with and for you, constructively, collegially, and creatively.
Brendan Hammer is a Partner at Schiller DuCanto & Fleck LLP. For more information or to reach Hammer, call 312-578-6129 or visit sdflaw.com.