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Finding A Kick-Ass Attorney
Eight Rules To See You Through A Rough Time

By Kevin Nelson
(7/19/00)


Research shows that nine out of ten divorced couples work out arrangements for their children without going to trial. For the ten percent who cannot agree, however, things can get a little dicey. There can be arguments about support payments, visitation rights, and the underlying issues of "custody"--where the children live and whether Mom or Dad is primarily responsible for them.

As with anything having to do with the law, nothing is simple. Start with the terms. "Joint legal custody" is when each parent has a say in school, medical and other decisions that affect their children. "Joint physical custody" is when the kids spend roughly comparable amounts of time at both Mom and Pop's house. But only a tiny minority of divorced couples have this arrangement. Over 80 percent of mothers are awarded sole custody following a divorce. Just over 10 percent of divorced fathers are granted sole custody.

Study after study affirms the common sense notion that it is better for children to spend time with both parents. It is possible, however, that common sense may desert your ex- during this most stressful period. To protect yourself and your children's ability to regularly see their dad as well as their mom, you may need to bring in a hired gun--i.e., an attorney. Here are eight battle-tested tips on how to find a kick-ass attorney for a custody dispute:


Get A Referral.
Word of mouth is the best way to find a good car mechanic, house painter or lawyer. Let competence be your guide in making a choice. There are excellent attorneys who are "Certified Family Law Specialists," as well as some real turkeys. There are also excellent family law attorneys who are not certified.


Be Prepared To Fork Over Some Real Dough.
Rates for attorneys begin at $180 an hour. The retainer (advance against fees) will be a minimum of $2,000. Expect to pay another, larger retainer if your case goes to trial. Custody fights can cost $10,000 to $20,000 or in the most celebrated cases, hundreds of thousands of dollars in attorney fees. Mediation services are less expensive, but some cases, such as when one spouse threatens to move the children to another city or state, do not lend themselves to mediation.


Get The Most Expensive Attorney You Can Afford.
In family court, fathers are knee-capped at every turn. You need to leverage the one advantage you may have--your financial resources--by hiring the best possible advocate.


Don't Pick An Attorney Just Because She's A Woman.
Having a female attorney could show you as a family guy, attuned to your feminine side, partner of womankind. Then again, not. Ultimately your case will rise or fall based on you and your family situation, not your attorney's gender.


Be A Tough Questioner.
Many attorneys offer an initial consult at a reduced hourly rate in which you can discuss your case. Make the most of it. And be aggressive. What is his success rate in cases like yours? Realistically, what are your chances? Does he have experience in the court where your case will be heard? What does he know about the judges who will hear your case? Opposing counsel?


Find Out About His Fees And What The Retainer Covers.
Get a ballpark estimate of your total costs. Does he charge for phone calls? Will you be on the hook for her attorney fees if you lose? Make sure he copies you on all relevant documents.


Be Clear About Tactics. Discuss Details.
The opposing side may try to smear you with charges and insinuations that more resemble science fiction than reality. Even your most caring, loving attributes as a father may be used as a weapon against you. How does the lawyer plan to combat this?


Read The Contract.
Once you choose your attorney, read the contract and be sure you're clear about it before you sign. The devil, as any lawyer will tell you, is in the details.




Kevin Nelson is a journalist, novelist and screenwriter. He is the author of "The Daddy Guide" and twelve other books. He fought a two-year-long custody battle and trial over his daughter.






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