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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.)

Working with your lawyer

back to topWhat will my lawyer need to know from me?

Once you choose a lawyer, take care to explain to the lawyer everything that you think is relevant about your case.  Here are some things that you might want to bring up in your first couple of conversations with your lawyer:

  • Explain what your concerns are about the case;
  • Tell him/her what your goals are;
  • Tell him/her what you think the other party’s goals will be or what s/he may say about you, regardless of if those things may be true or made up. Even if you think that this information would be hurtful to your case, your attorney should be aware of everything. Having surprise evidence come up during a hearing or a trial that your attorney was not prepared for can be very damaging to your case;
  • Ask about his/her strategy for how to accomplish your goals;
  • Ask what things you can do to better prepare your case, including what documents you may be able to show the attorney, what witness testimony may be helpful, etc.; and
  • Ask the attorney what else s/he needs to know from you and be open and honest with your attorney in answering whatever questions s/he asks.  Your attorney may have to ask difficult questions that will be hard for you to answer but remember that your conversations with your attorney are confidential (with limited exceptions).
If you feel you are having trouble explaining things to your lawyer, write down what you want to say beforehand.  Sometimes it is helpful to write things down in a bullet point list, keeping each bullet point to two lines.  When you write things down in this way, it often helps you get your thoughts straight and focus on the most important parts.  It could also help the lawyer follow what you are trying to explain.

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back to topWho gets to make decisions about my case - me or my lawyer?

Your lawyer is supposed to advocate for you and represent your interests in the case to the judge.  Your lawyer can make strategic decisions on the case such as what evidence to present, which witnesses will testify, etc.  However, you are the only one who can make decisions about what type of settlement to accept in the case.  For example, if the other parent wants joint custody or unsupervised visits and you feel this is not in the best interests of you or your child, you do not have to agree to this just because your lawyer might want you to.  You can tell your lawyer to refuse the offer and go to trial.  However, oftentimes people agree to settlement offers that might not be exactly what they want in order to prevent possibly ending up with an even worse outcome at trial.  Your lawyer should give you information and advice to help you make an educated decision about whether to settle or go to trial.  Your lawyer can tell you the likelihood of winning your case based on what the law says and how judges tend to rule in your county.  You should consider all of your lawyer's advice carefully -- but the final decision is yours.

Before your court hearing, you can ask the lawyer how s/he is planning to present your case to the judge.   Remember that while you are in front of the judge, your lawyer is probably trying to sift through everything you have told him/her to pick out the things that are most important to bring up in court.  If you think the lawyer forgot something or said something incorrect to the judge, be sure to let your lawyer know.  You know the facts of your case better than anyone and you are an important part of your “legal team.”  Don't be intimidated by your lawyer.  It is important to have a voice in the relationship with your lawyer. 

Remember that while your lawyer has special expertise in practicing law, you are the one that has hired the lawyer and it is your case that s/he is working on.  You will be the one who has to live with the outcome of the case long after your lawyer has moved on to other clients.

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back to topWhat are my options if I do not like what my lawyer is doing?

Talk to your lawyer about your concerns.  It may be beneficial to put your concerns in writing, in an email or letter so that you can keep a record of your interaction with your lawyer.  Your lawyer may have very good reasons for the decisions that s/he has made and can hopefully explain his/her legal strategy.  If you do not like the decisions and/or you disagree with the direction that your lawyer wants to take your case, be clear in explaining why you think the strategy is a problem.  If after talking to your lawyer, you are still concerned that your lawyer is not representing you well, you may want to talk to another lawyer, if possible, to get a second opinion about what your lawyer is telling you or doing (or not doing) in court.  An advocate at a local domestic violence program or another lawyer may also help you think through questions you might want to ask your lawyer to help you better understand the lawyer's strategy.

If you are still unhappy with your lawyer's representation of you, you may decide to fire your lawyer and hire a new lawyer.   If you do this, make sure that you get copies of your files from your first lawyer so that your next lawyer will have everything s/he needs to represent you.  However, firing your lawyer and getting a new one may not be a realistic option when your attorney was given to you through a free legal services organization or appointed by the judge (if your state appoints lawyers in civil proceedings).  In the majority of cases, the supply of lawyers who provide free representation is much lower than the demand and it may be more difficult to get a second lawyer to provide free legal services.  For more information on ways to talk to your lawyer about your concerns, see Working with the lawyer you have from our When the Legal System Fails You page.  You can find links for legal services organizations as well as your state bar association’s legal referral service on our Finding a Lawyer page.

If you feel your lawyer has acted unethically or committed malpractice, the state bar association generally handles attorney complaints in each state and can investigate your claim and discipline the attorney if appropriate.

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