Changing Lawyers in the Middle of Your Divorce: Is it the Right Thing to Do?
Changing lawyers in the middle of your divorce or custody case is a major decision. In addition to the added costs of starting over with a new attorney, you sometimes run the risk of stigmatization. In particular, the best divorce or custody lawyers (who tend to be in high demand) may decline the representation if the client has already gone through multiple attorneys. Judges, too, are susceptible to this bias.
Still, there are many situations where a change of attorneys is essential to the outcome of your case. How can you tell if changing lawyers is the right thing for you? Consider the factors listed below.
Changing Lawyers for Personal Reasons
In theory, it is not essential for you and your lawyer to agree on what positions you should be taking in your case. In most states, it is the client’s role to decide on the goals of the representation while the lawyer takes charge of strategy and execution. However, in practice, there are likely to be problems when there are repetitive or fundamental disagreements between the lawyer and client. If the client is frequently choosing a path that is not recommended by the attorney, or is experiencing inordinate pressure from the attorney and/or regret about following the attorney’s advice in the past, the relationship may be unsalvageable.
How do you know if the problem is on your end? First, try to set aside your emotions. You are paying your lawyer for advice and advocacy — not validation. If your lawyer is telling you things that you do not want to hear, that could be a good sign. After all, your lawyer has a financial interest in making you feel good. The lawyer’s incentive to leave you with unrealistic expectations is especially high during the initial consultation, and especially when the consultation is free.
After curbing your emotional needs, you should consider the objective evidence. Is your divorce or custody lawyer well regarded in the legal community? Does he or she have positive client reviews online? How does his or her work product measure up to that of your spouse’s attorney? Has there been logical consistency in the advice that your lawyer has given you? The point is, if your lawyer is not performing well, there will probably be objective signs.
Of course, in many situations, the problem is fit rather than fault. The lawyer and client may have different communication styles or different expectations as to how the lawyer and client should be sharing responsibilities. In some situations, the lawyer is simply be too busy for a particular client’s needs. Think carefully about your historical interactions with your attorney. Are you frustrated or suspicious most of the time? Have things failed to improve despite your best efforts? If so, it is probably wise to make a change.
The legal process for divorce or separation can take a very long time, usually several months or more, and sometimes years. Your attorney’s hourly rate and practice style will have a huge impact on your total legal fees. Keep in mind that your attorney’s hourly rate alone is not an accurate predictor of your total legal expenses. Lawyers can vary greatly in terms of their efficiency and practice standards. Some lawyers are unwilling to change their regular process, even if a simpler route is a better fit for the client.
If it becomes clear that you will not be able to afford your attorney, you should consider making a change to an attorney that is cheaper, more efficient, or more dynamic. You do not want to end up in a situation where you have no attorney at all. Pay attention to your legal bills, be realistic about your financial means, and make inquiries with your attorney about where you are in the process. The best divorce and custody attorneys will be candid with you about where you are in the process and provide a range of probable legal expenses to see you through.
You may suspect that your lawyer is acting in an illegal or unethical manner. In that situation, you should seek a second opinion at minimum. Illegal or unethical activity by a lawyer is often a symptom of deeper issues that could drastically impact your case. Do not take chances – take your concerns to a new lawyer and ask for a case review. You may find that your concerns were unwarranted, but the peace of mind will be worth it.
If a change is needed, the timing of the change may be important. In particular, it may be difficult or impossible to change attorneys in the weeks or months immediately preceding a trial or hearing date. Similarly, if your current attorney is in the middle of an important and time-sensitive task, it might be better to wait until that task is completed. It could also be possible to postpone your trial or hearing so that your new attorney can get up to speed. Before you inform your current attorney of your decision, be sure to ask your new attorney about how and when to facilitate the transition.