Which Family Lawyer should I choose?

Ross Dunlop
Consultant
Barrister and Solicitor

Posted on 16/12/2016, Last Updated on 20/03/2019

In my last post, I discussed why it is a good idea to get advice from a family lawyer. In this post, I provide tips on how to choose the right one for you.

For most people, their relationship with their family lawyer is different to that with their accountant, financial planner or commercial lawyer whom they may see year in, year out – but only once or twice a year.  Instead, you will tend to work with your family lawyer, often intensely, for a period of anything between 6 months to 2 years, depending on the nature of your case and whether it proceeds to trial or, in rare cases, appeal. Having the right lawyer can have significant implications for the manner in which your case is run and for the creation of opportunities to settle your dispute.  Above all, there must be a “good fit” between solicitor and client.  Below are some queries you might pose to your lawyer during an initial consultation to determine if he/she is the right one for you and your case.

Whilst the solicitor might be unable to answer all of your questions comprehensively, they should be able to give you sufficient information to enable you to trust in their experience and feel that you will be comfortable working with them.

So What Does Your Firm Actually Do……..?

Many lawyers practice in different areas of law, many of which are completely unconnected.  It is essential that you engage a solicitor who restricts their practice to family law.  Lawyers who have specialised in family law over a number of years are generally more up to date with the latest cases and legislation, are familiar with the rules and regulations of the Family Court and, importantly, have a working knowledge of the personalities (and peculiarities!) of the individual judicial officers who might be assigned to your case.  The presentation of your case – should the matter proceed to trial – will inevitably be tailored to the particular Judge hearing it.

Will Anyone Else Be Dealing With My Case? I Only Want You

Often, particularly in larger, more complex cases, a junior solicitor or paralegal may be assigned to carry out substantial work on your file.  It is important that you meet with those individuals when you attend the office so that you are able to more quickly develop an understanding with them and “put a face to their name”.  Don’t forget that lawyers are expensive, so having someone other than a partner competently carry out more basic tasks can prove beneficial in reducing costs.

Will You Return My Calls/Emails Right Away?

You should expect your lawyer to return your calls or respond to your emails in a meaningful way within 24 hours.  Often, your lawyer may be at Court for much of the day or engaged with back-to-back clients.  Unless your matter is urgent, and requires attention prior to close of business then your solicitor should acknowledge your call or email and confirm that it will be dealt with the following day (or at least within a specific timeframe, if complicated and requiring a detailed written response).  For the most part, however, family lawyers are not available after hours or at weekends when little can practically be done, in any event, as our opposite numbers are not available and the Family Court is closed.  If the situation involves domestic violence, then your first port of call must be the police.

How Long Do You Think My Case Will Take To Resolve?

The difficulty with this query is that every case will be different and, often, much depends upon the attitude of the other party and the attitude/ability of their solicitor.  If matters are close to agreement, and the case can more than likely be resolved by way of an Application for Consent Orders, then usually you should allow 3-4 months for that process to be completed and Final Orders to issue from the Court.  If, however, the parties’ relationship is acrimonious, they can agree about virtually nothing and the matter appears inevitably destined for Court, then a period of 12-18 months would possibly be more realistic.   Matters do not require a particular court event to occur in order to settle, however, this can occur at any time if the parties agree.

How Much Is All This Likely To Cost Me

Most lawyers operate by way of a chargeable hourly rate, depending on experience.  In most cases, family lawyers will operate by way of a Cost Agreement entered into at the commencement of your matter and which sets out clearly and concisely the parties’ expectations, rights and obligations in how the work is carried out and paid for.  In addition to your legal fees there are often likely to be additional charges (disbursements) for e.g. medical reports, valuers, accountants, court filing fees, and the like.

Generally, it is very difficult to predict with any degree of accuracy what litigated proceedings will ultimately cost.  The Legal Professional Act, however, requires solicitors to provide a range of estimated costs based on the known facts and circumstances at the relevant time; the extent of any agreement between the parties; and the level of complexity which might be involved.  This range can change from time to time, depending on which path the negotiation/litigation takes.

Can I Do Anything To Help Minimise Costs?

Fully prepare for your first consultation with your solicitor.  Complete any Initial Consultation Questionnaire sent to you in advance as comprehensively and accurately as possible, as this will reduce the time spent by the lawyer in eliciting basic information e.g. full names, dates of birth, a basic list of parties’ assets and liabilities etc.  This will leave more time for the merits of the case to be explored.

If you retain the lawyer, you will need (in financial cases) to provide some standard disclosure documents, usually bank statements, tax returns and group certificates, up-to-date superannuation statements, mortgage statements, pay slips, employment contracts and any documents which help prove any financial contributions either party has made.  It will therefore save time and costs if you can prepare these documents in a neat, indexed, cohesive fashion.  Simply dropping a plastic bag containing random, miscellaneous documents at reception is likely to engage a paralegal for several hours in undertaking (and charging for) a task you could largely have done yourself.

Keep a diary of notable events, including the place, time and date they occurred, who said or did what to whom, who witnessed it and what the outcome was.  Keeping notes of this nature will assist your lawyer in preparing any affidavits which are necessary later in the proceedings when it is often difficult to recall with any clarity dates, times, conversations, and events.  Ensure you retain all important texts and emails which could help prove any matters in dispute.

What Qualities Should I Be Looking For?

A good family lawyer needs to be empathetic (but not necessarily sympathetic) to you and they will not always agree with you.  You are not paying an hourly rate of around $400 – $500.00 per hour to have your lawyer either agree with everything you propose, or simply tell you “what you want to hear”.  You are paying them to provide you with their professional opinion and advice based on their knowledge, experience and dealings with similar types of matters over many years.

Your family lawyer should also have a reasonable working knowledge of other relevant areas of law.  Separation can impact on many spheres of law – property law, tax law, criminal law, and even international law.  The skill of a good family lawyer is to quickly ascertain what they don’t know and seek advice from other professionals more knowledgeable in that particular field, when required.  You should also expect your family lawyer to liaise with any financial planners, accountants, or commercial lawyers you may frequently engage to ensure that all such professionals are working towards the same goals and that your family lawyer is not adopting strategies or seeking an outcome which is incompatible with the aims of those other professionals.

Finally, you need to remember at all times that your family lawyer is not your new best friend.  Clients do find themselves in fairly desperate situations and often feel the need to talk at length to their lawyer in minute detail about historical events which have taken place between the parties.  Sometimes this is essential, for example, in the preparation of trial affidavits, but lawyers are expensive and they are not generally there to assume the role of counsellors or psychologists.  If your lawyer sounds blunt from time to time and presses you on what he or she considers to be more relevant issues, do not feel that they are dismissing your concerns – it is simply more likely that these concerns are not going to be shared by the court or otherwise make any meaningful difference to the outcome of your negotiations or hearing.  Lawyers will often seek large amounts of detail on matters which you may personally feel are unimportant;  and minimal detail on issues you consider to be vital.  Have trust in your lawyer to know which information is important about certain issues at that particular time.

Family law issues can often be intensely personal, so it is important that you feel at ease with your lawyer.  Therefore, when making an appointment you might wish to consider whether you feel more comfortable talking about deeply personal (occasionally embarrassing) matters with a male or female, or if you wish to instruct someone in a particular age bracket.  Of course, the level of personal detail required from you will necessarily differ from case to case.

In considering which family lawyer to see, you should canvass the opinion of family and friends whose opinions you trust.  Your financial planner, accountant, business lawyer or psychologist can also be a useful conduit in introducing you to the right firm, and most firms now have a comprehensive website which enables you to assess the “feel and fit” of that firm for you, personally.

As is evident from earlier in this article, the most important aspect of family law advice is to get it early.  If you are considering separation then you may wish to obtain advice prior to this to assist you with your plans.  If, however, separation has simply come “out of the blue” you should obtain advice at the first practical opportunity after learning of the breakdown.  This will give you the best chance of  protecting your position in both parenting and property matters before any major decisions are taken – for example, whether to leave the matrimonial home – which cannot be easily reversed, if at all.

The above does not constitute specific legal advice but is general information only.

Let’s meet, and figure it out

For practical advice about what you should do next, please call to arrange a no-obligation initial consultation.