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UPDATED April 16, 2015

Choosing and Working with a Lawyer

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Below is information for choosing and working with a lawyer in civil court proceedings, such as protection orders, custody, divorce, etc.   (For someone who is a crime victim and dealing with the prosecutor on a criminal court case, most of the information will not apply.)

Choosing a lawyer

back to topDo I need a lawyer to represent me in court?

Although a lawyer may not be absolutely necessary, having a knowledgeable lawyer who will fight for you in court can change the whole legal experience for you.  It can be intimidating to speak up in front of a judge or to know what your legal rights are in the court process if you are representing yourself.

A person who wants to file a case in court should be able to get the necessary forms from the courthouse or online from the state's courts website.   For civil protection orders, the forms are often designed to be filled out by a person without a lawyer and can be fairly straight-forward.  However, for cases that are more complicated, such as divorce, filling out the forms correctly and knowing what to write in the forms to try to get the best outcome can be challenging to do alone.  Also, once the court case has begun, the other party involved may file legal papers (motions) that need to be answered in a certain legal format, which can be difficult to do without a lawyer.

A lawyer can be especially important if the other party has a lawyer and/or if the case cannot be resolved and the judge is going to hold a hearing or trial.  There are complicated “rules of evidence” that spell out what type of statements, documents, or other evidence can be admitted (accepted by a judge) in court, which a lawyer would know.

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back to topHow do I find a lawyer?

If you cannot afford to pay a lawyer, you may be able to get free legal assistance from a non-profit legal organization in your area.  We have links for legal assistance in each state on our Finding a Lawyer page.  However, very often, the demand for lawyers outweighs the supply of lawyers and so there may be waiting lists or you may get turned down.  If this happens, you may want to ask the legal assistance program if they can recommend any other programs in your county that you can call or if, at the very least, you can get a free consultation with an attorney or some ongoing guidance from an attorney if you have to represent yourself in court.

If you can afford to pay a lawyer, or if you cannot get free legal help and feel that your only option is to figure out a way to pay for a private lawyer, your state's bar association likely has a program where they will refer you to a lawyer in your area.  Often times, the initial half-hour consultation with the lawyer will cost between $25 and $50 and then it is up to you to decide whether or not to hire the attorney to represent you.  You can find a link to your state’s bar association legal referral service on our Finding a Lawyer page.  You may also be able to get a referral to an attorney who is sensitive to issues of domestic violence if you call your local domestic violence program or your state coalition against domestic violence – see our State and Local Programs page.

For a list of suggested questions to ask an attorney who you are considering hiring to represent you, see How do I pick the right attorney? What questions do I ask?

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back to topHow do I pick the right attorney? What questions do I ask?

Choosing the right attorney to represent you can be crucial to your case.  Before deciding whether or not you want to retain (hire) the attorney, you should interview the attorney to see if you think s/he is qualified, just as you would interview anyone that you are hiring to perform any job.  (However, interviewing and choosing an attorney may not be an option if you are assigned an attorney from a free legal services organization or if the judge assigns an attorney to you.)  Here are some questions that may be helpful to guide you in your initial meeting with an attorney:

  • How long have you been practicing?  What types of cases do you usually handle?  How many of those have gone to trial?
  • How many cases involving domestic violence victims (or custody, divorce, etc.) have you handled?  What is your view of how domestic violence should be introduced in court in a case like mine (i.e., is it important, not relevant, etc.)?
  • Here is what I would like to accomplish in my case (explain your goals) – do you think that is a realistic outcome or not?
  • Can you explain to me what relevant laws will come into play in my case? What will a judge look at when making a decision?
  • What type of communication do you expect us to have during the case? If I email you, how long will you usually take to reply? If I call you, when can I expect a call back?
It is also important to understand all of the fees that you will be expected to pay and what those fees cover.  Most attorneys will ask for a lump sum up front, known as a retainer.  This often covers the hourly rate of the attorney for the number of hours that the attorney estimates s/he will spend on your case.  Below is a list of suggested questions that you can ask an attorney to best understand the total costs, many of which come from the National Coalition Against Domestic Violence:
  • What are your fees? What work do these fees cover? Is this an hourly fee or a flat fee for the entire case?
  • Is there an additional charge per court date for every time you appear in court?
  • Do you charge a retainer?  How much?  What does it cover?  Do you refund all or part of the retainer if my case ends up being dropped or not taking much time? (Attorneys should be willing to refund any part of the retainer not spent; make sure the agreement clearly indicates that any unused retainer money will be returned to you.)
  • Are there other expenses that I may have to pay, such as filing fees, mailing or copying fees?  What are they and how much are they likely to be?  Will I be charged for your time if we speak on the phone or if we email each other?
  • Will you be the only person working on my case?  If not, what will other people do?  How will I be charged for their work?  Will I be charged for speaking to your secretary and/or receptionist?
  • Are there ways that I can assist you to keep down my costs?
  • Will you send me a copy of letters, documents, and court papers that you file or receive regarding my case?
  • Do you charge extra if the case gets more complicated or we have to go back to court multiple times?
  • Will you require that I have paid everything that I owe you before you will go to court with me or finish my case? (Many attorneys do this. They may also refuse to return your original papers or copies of your file, and in some states, this may be legal. Therefore, you should insist on getting a copy of any paper filed with the court, given to, or received from, another party or otherwise relevant to your case at the time the paper is filed or received.  Be sure to keep all of them in a safe place, in case you ever need them.)
  • Are you willing to work out a payment plan with me?   Do you ever adjust your fees on a sliding scale for people who cannot afford your regular rate?
  • Will you put our agreement about fees and work you will perform in writing?
  • Will I receive a monthly invoice for services rendered and the amount of money owed/used for that period?
Note: In some states, the law allows the judge to order the higher-income spouse to pay the attorney fees of the lower-income spouse. If there is a big difference in the income level between you and your spouse, ask the attorney if this is possible under your state’s laws and make sure the attorney is willing to ask the judge to order this.  Some attorneys may not want to make this legal request to the judge since it might mean that the attorney will have to wait to the end of the case to receive payment.

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back to topWhat if I cannot get a lawyer? How do I represent myself?

If you cannot get a lawyer, you may have to represent yourself in court, which is known as being a "pro se litigant."  (“Pro se” is a Latin term that means “on one’s own behalf.”)  Many courthouses have an office within the court that assists self-represented litigants in filling out paperwork or by providing brief advice - ask the clerk of court if there is any help for pro se litigants available in the courthouse. Advocates at local domestic violence organizations may also be able to help you with filling out forms or may accompany you to court for support if you are a victim of abuse.  Go to our State and Local Programs page to find an organization near you.  For tips on representing yourself in court in a protection order or custody case, go to our Preparing Your Case page.

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