5 questions to ask when choosing a family lawyer

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lawyer Photo: SHUTTERSTOCK

Going through a marriage break-up is the worst. Well, at least until you have to then follow that up with all the legal issues of a legal divorce and property settlement.

Some former partners can get through it reasonably and kindly, but divorce is known for bringing out the worst in people. 

Emotional hurts spill over into what should be clinical financial settlements, and everything can become difficult. What you need at a time like this is a family lawyer who can navigate you through the process while you're at your most vulnerable.

Lucy Good is the owner of Beanstalk Single Mums, an interactive single mother platform, and she's supported countless single mums as they navigate their way through property settlements. She knows this is a tough time.

"Disarray is the first word that comes to mind!" she says. "With divorce being the second most stressful life event, people are going through a rollercoaster ride of emotions, alongside navigating big practical changes to their lives. 

"Decisions during this time can be made out fear and necessity, without having the time, knowledge or energy to access if they are right or not. Often there is lots of well-meaning advice from friends and family which may be incorrect since everyone's separation circumstances are unique."

Good says the best place to start when looking for a lawyer is word of mouth. 

"Word of mouth can be a good place to start, but it is not enough on its own," she says. It's important to check out the lawyer before engaging their services. Online support groups for single parents can provide suggestions, as well as looking on Google. 

"Taking time to research via websites is a great starting point. Here you can see their location, their expertise, their team, and most importantly, their values i.e. why they do what they do, the service they offer and the outcomes they want for their clients." 

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So once you've done your research, how do you choose the best family lawyer for you? It's important to ask the right questions:

1. Does this person make me feel comfortable?

Jennifer Franklin has been a family lawyer for over 25 years in Sydney and Brisbane, and she says the choice must be a personal one. 

"It's a relationship built at a time when most people are at a low point in their life," she says. "Often you need to share stories you wouldn't tell your mum, best friend or mate over a beer, so it's about feeling comfortable with sharing information, feeling respected and that the solicitor understands what your priorities are."

2. How qualified is my lawyer?

Family lawyers in Australia are actually solicitors (lawyer is an American term that has crept its way in here), and they all have law degrees. They're all qualified to help you navigate your way through your divorce and property settlement, but there are some that are known as an "accredited specialist".

Franklin says those specialists must have many years of experience and sit a challenging exam in order to win that accreditation from their state law society.

Those with accreditations will generally charge higher fees but Franklin says if your case is pretty straightforward (and most settlements are, even though they may not feel it at the time), they are not necessarily any better for your situation.

3. Does my laywer want to go to court?

Franklin says most laywers will try to help you avoid going to court if it can be helped, and if yours doesn't want to do that, you may want to consider shopping around. 

"Some lawyers also engage in 'collaborative practice' which is a special type of mediation aimed at assisting parties resolve their issues without court," says Franklin.

4. Is my lawyer a family law specialist?

"Family law is a specialist area of law, it is dynamic and evolving," says Franklin. "You need someone who really does mostly family law work, rather than a variety of lots of things and none of them necessarily very well. I never recommend garden variety suburban firms that offer a range of service in all areas of law."

5. How much does my lawyer charge?

It's a basic question and you have the right to know up front so don't be embarrassed to ask. Also, ask how you'll be charged, if there's an up-front retainer, what supplementary charges there are for things like reading letters from your ex's lawyer, and whether any junior staff working on your case will affect the rate. 

Good says you'll often find law firms' fee structures on their website.

"Fixed fees are becoming more popular and allow you to budget accordingly," she says.

Once you've made a decision, Good says you should know early on if you've chosen the right lawyer for you.

"They will communicate regularly, keep you in the loop of what is happening, and always be available to answer your questions and concerns," she says. 

"They'll keep you calm and lessen stress, instead of making you worry more. A good lawyer will also lay out a list of options and possible outcomes to every move, so you know what to expect and what happens next. 

"Most importantly, a good lawyer will work to keep your case out of court and as short as possible, as well as keeping your relationship with your ex-partner amicable with a view to you building a happy, healthy co-parenting relationship."

And if you realise you've chosen the wrong lawyer? That's not a problem says Franklin.

"You can change your mind at any stage," she says. "Simply terminate your firm's services in writing via email.

"You'll usually need to pay any outstanding bills before they will arrange to send your documents elsewhere, so make sure you can do that fast and move on."