There are jokes about attorneys, their cut-throat business sense, their evil ways in the courtroom, their lack of honesty and integrity. Yet, most people would not want to enter a courtroom without one at their sides.
I'm here to tell you lawyers put their pants on one leg at a time, same as the rest of us. Yes, they charge money for their services, money which is their due for their expertise. Most are not out to cheat their clients. Some are generous with their time and give back to the community through pro bono work (free access to their services).
The older I get, the more I seem to end up in courtroom situations, thankfully not in the criminal courts, but in civil courts. These instances have ranged from accusations of a delicate nature (proven to be unfounded and untrue), to a bottom-feeder collection agency trying to make us pay a bill that was not ours (They did not expect us to show up in court with evidence to the contrary). The Mister and I were able to get by without an attorney in two of them. The first time we were able to do so was due to the law in that state working toward pro se, or self-represented, law. The second instance was because the case was small claims and I had time to deal with it.
Only once did we have a truly bad attorney. He took our money and did absolutely nothing, including not speaking with the other party's representation and not showing up for court. He then blabbed confidential information about us over his supper table. We knew because his kid went to school with our kid, and his kid used some of the information to taunt our kid. It is no surprise that he no longer practices law, and it is no surprise that yours truly made it her business to make sure he curtailed his law practice.
When a grandparent discovers the need for an attorney to assist in the process of custody or adoption of a grandchild, the stress is even greater. A child's life, a child's future is at stake. The parent in question may be abusive not only to the child, but to the concerned grandparent, in order to intimidate that grandparent into dropping the whole matter. It's never a good time to spend what could amount to thousands of dollars, and one's golden years are not one of the best times to peer down the path of so many more years of raising a child. Some people feel intimidated by courts in general and attorneys in particular. They think of TV shows and celebrity court cases. The legal system is not as user-friendly as it should be, and is a mystery to a lot of people. An attorney, therefore, is not a luxury, but a necessity a great deal of the time.
It seems a good time to point out that while the attorney you hire is on your team because of his or her expertise, you are hiring an attorney. The attorney will work for you. Odds are the attorney will represent your grandchild's best interest only as a side effect (peripherally). YOU are the party going to court to ask that something be done (petition). YOU are the one being represented through the attorney, because you probably don't know a dang thing about the law, especially as it pertains to custody of your grandchild.
Should your relationship with the attorney be that of other people you hire, such as lawn mowers, housekeepers or repair people? No. You will be the prospective attorney's client. The attorney is not your hired hand, your lackey or your hairdresser. But you should expect some courtesy and respect as somebody paying big bucks to solve a big problem.
So, how do you hire an attorney?
- Attorneys are people, with their own personalities and approaches to the Law. Think about your own personality before you interview.
- Don't be swayed by ads in the phone book or on the Internet. There some attorneys out there with big ads who don't do anything but hand off cases to associates, who may or may not be good at what they do. Do your homework BEFORE you meet attorneys for initial interviews. Google their names, to be sure there aren't a lot of complaints on various web sites from people who have not had good results from this attorney or that. One or two complaints is not an issue, because not everybody gets along, and a few people have extreme expectations of what an attorney can accomplish. But if you see repeated complaints, steer clear.
- Also check your local state attorney disciplinary board. Many states have databases where prospective clients can research prospective attorneys for actions against them by the state. Yes, you can check the Better Business Bureau, and word-of-mouth has its own benefits. But there are a minority of shark lawyers out there, and if your state has had to discipline one of your prospective attorneys, think twice about hiring such a person.
- When you have a list of possible attorneys, set up appointments to interview them. Many attorneys give this initial interview free of charge, or for a minimal ($50-$100) fee.
- If you feel uncomfortable in the interview process, take along a trusted relative or friend.
- Write a brief summary of what you hope to accomplish, and what evidence you have to support your desire. This will keep things on track, and you won't waste the attorney's or your time.
- Don't be afraid to ask the tough questions. Don't hold back information on the case in question when asked particular questions.
- Be conversational, but don't tell the attorney your life story. This is not a therapy session.
- Remember that age should not be a factor when choosing an attorney. An older, seasoned attorney might just feel you have no business giving up your golden years to raise a child, while a younger attorney might just be the ticket to representing you against an equally young respondent.
- Go ahead and ask HOW MUCH WILL THIS COST. The specifics you should learn at the interview are general guidelines on the retainer and rate per hour. The retainer is money paid up-front, much like a deposit. The rate per hour is then subtracted from the retainer.
- Some attorneys will want the projected entire amount in advance before they commit to do any work on the case. Some attorneys will take a small retainer, subtract their hourly rate from that, and expect either a monthly replenishment of the retainer or a new retainer when funds are exhausted. Some attorneys charge a flat rate per hour. Some attorneys charge less if their paralegals do the work. ASK.
- If a particular attorney does not want to represent you, he or she will tell you. Don't press him or her. Thank him or her and go on to the next attorney. This particular attorney may not have the expertise in family law to handle your case well. He or she may have interviewed with or represented your adult child recently, and there's a conflict of interest. It might be a simple matter of timing. Law schools turn out more attorneys every year. You'll be able to find one, never fear.
Once you have found the attorney for you, do your best with this business relationship to keep things on an even keel:
- There will be an exchange of very personal information with the attorney on your part, but it is a BUSINESS relationship. Do not drive your attorney crazy with constant phone calls, every little thing that bothers you, and every antic your adult child pulls to try to get you to stop your case. Good attorneys have experience in people skills, but they are not psychologists. And remember, every minute you spend on the phone with your attorney or the paralegal cost money. It's a good time to get a therapist or join a support group, anyway.
- The converse is also true. Tell your attorney when the unusual or an emergency happens. Examples of such emergencies are being threatened with physical harm by your adult child, kidnapping of the grandchild by the adult child, private detectives on your front lawn, harassing phone calls, stalking.
- Pay your attorney bills, on time. I knew of a young man who tried to stiff his attorney-mediator. It ended badly for him in court. Attorneys have families and expenses, and are not made of money.
- Seriously consider your attorney's advice to you and then DO WHAT HE OR SHE TELLS YOU TO DO. You are paying for expertise here.
- Show up for court dates before the time set, in appropriate attire. This is not the time to show how young Grandma looks in her spandex pants, or how nice Grandpa's gold chains look against his chest hair.
- When you have court orders, follow your attorney's advice on how to comply with those orders. Again, the attorney was hired for expertise. If you have questions, ASK.