Choosing a family lawyer for your separation or divorce is an important decision, and one you should thoroughly research before signing a retainer agreement, says Toronto family lawyer Mira Pilch.
Pilch, an associate lawyer with Gottlieb Law Firm in Toronto, says the average divorce case runs anywhere from nine to 12 months, which means it’s vital to work with a family law lawyer whose thinking aligns with yours.
“You get a good gut instinct from a first in-person meeting. Talk to several lawyers before deciding. You want a lawyer who agrees with your philosophy about what’s important and one who will work within your financial constraints,” she says.
During the initial consultation, Pilch suggests asking lawyer candidates about their experience working on similar files. For example, if the main area you and your spouse can’t agree on relates to your children — such as how they will split their time between parents — she says it makes sense to ask the lawyer how often they handle similar cases and what the outcome has been.
“With experience comes a level of confidence and assuredness that your lawyer will get you to the other side. You want to feel well taken care of and that the lawyer understands your goals in the case,” she says.
Familiarity with the various court systems in Ontario is another important consideration for people shopping for a lawyer, Pilch adds.
“In family law, many things are at the judge’s discretion, so you want a lawyer who knows the community, as well as the court services and resources that are available in the area. An experienced lawyer will bring in the right resources for your case, including community-based parenting coordinators, home valuators, social workers and financial planners.”
Litigation ready, if necessary
If you feel your case is going to end up in court — or is currently in litigation — make sure you ask how often the lawyer is in court and how many trials they have conducted, Pilch says.
“People should never feel intimidated to ask about the lawyer’s experience,” she says. “Some lawyers prefer not to go to court, and that’s a better fit for some clients. But if you or your former partner aren’t collaborative and your case is highly adversarial, you want a lawyer who is confident taking that approach.”
People often have pre-conceived notions about winning in divorce, but Pilch says when you hire a lawyer, it’s important to remember that you’re investing in their experience. Clients benefit from a family lawyer who is frank about the details of their case and how the law applies to their situation.
“A lawyer who cautions you against taking a position that is not in your best interests or who can explain why your expectations aren’t realistic” is important because it means they are focused on resolving your matter efficiently,” she says.
Ask about legal fees
Before you hire a lawyer, Pilch says it’s important to have a clear idea of their legal fees and what they include.
“Ask about their hourly rate and what you can do to keep costs down. Carefully review the retainer agreement before you sign it because there’s a lot of fine print that binds you to the contract. If your lawyer can’t answer your questions about the retainer agreement, find another lawyer.”
At Gottlieb Law Firm, Pilch says legal fees are based on the amount of work on each case, not on the overhead or the fancy artwork hanging on the walls.
“We have four family law lawyers who work collaboratively to support our clients. That means if I’m in court and my client calls the office, one of our other lawyers will be able to help them,” she says.
Watch for red flags
The initial consultation with a lawyer gives clients important insights into what the relationship might look like as the case unfolds.
“Just like any professional, you want a lawyer who shows up on time and listens to you. If they’re multi-tasking or preoccupied during the meeting, they may not be a good fit,” Pilch says.
Ask how the lawyer will update you as your case progresses and what’s expected from you regarding communication of relevant information, she adds.
“Setting expectations early in the client-lawyer relationship will ensure everyone is on the same page, Pilch says. “At our firm, we generally ask clients to pull together all their questions and email them once a week, unless it’s an emergency. That keeps your legal costs under control.”
While litigation is sometimes unavoidable in family law matters, Pilch says, in general, a collaborative approach is the most cost-effective route to resolution.
“You don’t want a lawyer who goes in guns blazing at the outset of a new case, especially when children are involved. Even if there’s a great deal of acrimony, you will have to see each other after your divorce. The scorched-earth policy is difficult, and sometimes it must happen, but you don’t want to start there.”
Finally, Pilch says to look for a lawyer who can empathize with your situation.
“While this is a job for us, we are very much aware this is likely the biggest thing in your life. It’s not just another day at the office. These cases are emotional, and we recognize that.”
If you are facing a separation or divorce and need help understanding your options, book a consultation with a family law lawyer at Gottlieb Law Firm here.