How to choose a family lawyer?

Choosing a family lawyer can be a daunting and overwhelming experience. This is often exacerbated by the stressful situation you are likely to be in when making the selection. When choosing a family lawyer, you are choosing the person to assist you through one of the most challenging times in your life.

1. Do they have appropriate expertise?

Law is comprised of many different areas. If you have a family law issue, it is important to engage a lawyer who specialises in this area. Family law is a unique area of law with its own courts, rules and procedures. Be sceptical of a lawyer that asserts that he/she practices law in a variety of different areas.

As opposed to a general practitioner, a lawyer specialising in family law has greater depth of knowledge in the area and can attend to your matter more efficiently and cost effectively. Unless your matter is unusually complex, they are not required to engage outside counsel, such as barristers, to assist in providing you with general advice.

The Law Society of NSW operates a Specialist Accreditation Scheme to assist the public identify lawyers who have demonstrated proficiency in a particular area of law. It is a rigorous process which assesses a lawyer’s competency, knowledge and skill in their practice area. A lawyer who has demonstrated expertise in a particular area of law is referred to as an Accredited Specialist.

Carla Santo, the principal of Santo Family Lawyers, is a Family Law Accredited Specialist.

2. Does your lawyer understand their role?

When facing a family law issue, a lot of the stress arises from not knowing: not knowing what your obligations are, what your entitlements are, or what your options are on how to reach an outcome. The role of your lawyer is to take away that stress by providing this information and helping you understand what to expect. It is your lawyer’s role to listen to you to understand your legal issue. Based on the information you provide, your lawyer will provide you with advice. Once you have received that advice, it is your role to make decisions about the conduct of your matter. It is not your lawyer’s role to tell you what to do or make decisions for you.

You should never feel like a bother for asking questions. Your lawyer should never be dismissive of your comments, views or concerns. After speaking with your lawyer, you should feel heard, informed and empowered.

At Santo Family Lawyers we listen to our clients and empower them to make decisions in relation to their family law matters by providing comprehensive advice. We welcome questions and discussions in relation to our clients’ family law matters.

3. Is your lawyer available to you?

When you meet with the lawyer, it is important that they have the capacity to take on your matter and are available to you. You should be able to contact your lawyer directly as required and if they are not available to speak with you, they should respond to your calls (or emails) in a timely manner. It is no good having a lawyer who takes days to return your call or does not respond to your emails.

You can test this by telephoning your lawyer before you engage them to see if they answer your calls or respond to your emails.

When meeting with the lawyer, it is also important to understand who will be working on your case. Often in large firms, you will initially meet with a partner of the firm, only to later find more junior lawyers working on your matter.

The principal of Santo Family Lawyers, Carla Santo has carriage of all matters. Each client has her mobile number and can contact her directly.

4. What are the lawyer’s fees and how do they charge?

Generally, lawyers charge an hourly rate for the time they work on your matter. The rate the lawyer charges should not be the deciding factor in choosing your lawyer. You may find a lawyer who charges $400 per hour, but who takes double the time to complete the same task it takes for a lawyer who charges $600 per hour.

It is important to ask how you will be charged. There is a practice in the legal industry of charging in 6-minute increments. This means if you speak to your lawyer for 3 minutes, they will still charge you for 6 minutes of their time or if your lawyer works on your matter for 7 minutes they will charge you 12 minutes of their time.

Be wary of lawyers charging fixed fees. It is extremely difficult to provide an accurate estimate in family law matters as there are many factors that affect the costs. This includes the position taken by the other party and the range and complexity of factual and legal issues. Fixed fee agreements usually come with a very limited scope and if events occur outside of the anticipated scope they can be varied.

At Santo Family Lawyers we only charge for the work conducted on your matter and for the time it takes to work on your matter.

5. What are your instincts telling you?

If you meet with a lawyer and it does not feel right, it is because it is not right. In these situations, you should meet with other lawyers to get a feel for the right one for you. Whilst you may be reluctant to spend money meeting with different lawyers, bear in mind that finding the right lawyer will provide you with peace of mind that you have found the right representation for you in your family law matter.

You must feel comfortable with the lawyer you engage and ensure that you are able to work together effectively. You must trust that the lawyer is acting to achieve the best outcome for you. If your matter proceeds to court, you need to trust that your lawyer will be a strong advocate for you.

We have reached agreement; do I need a lawyer?

Whether the issue in dispute relates to parenting or property (or both), it is important that you understand the law and how it impacts on your circumstances and the agreement you have reached. A lawyer will advise you if the agreement you have reached is fair and reasonable.

If you reach agreement with your spouse/partner in relation to a property settlement, for that agreement to be legally binding it must be documented by either a court order or a financial agreement. There are many benefits of having a legally binding agreement, including being able divide superannuation entitlements, prevent your former spouse or partner making any claims on your property in the future, options for enforcement if the other party fails to comply with the agreement, and stamp duty exemptions.

If you reach agreement between yourselves in relation to parenting arrangements for your children and want that agreement to be legally binding, you will need to see a lawyer.

When is the best time to see a family lawyer?

Very simply, as soon as possible.

Seeking advice from a lawyer, even prior to separation, will provide you with advice about how to best protect your financial circumstances and about putting in place appropriate arrangements in relation to the children upon separation.

Prior to separation, your lawyer can provide you with information and tools to assist in the separation process. There are many avenues to resolve the matter outside of litigation and your lawyer is obliged to provide you with advice in relation to all of these options. Seeking advice about these options early on may prevent an acrimonious and drawn-out dispute.

If you have not been able to see a lawyer prior to separation, you should see a lawyer as soon as possible afterwards so that you can understand your rights and legal obligations, and ensure that you are placing yourself in the best position possible moving forward.

What can I expect from the initial conference?

The purpose of the initial consultation is to provide you with comprehensive advice as to your rights and obligations, the different options available for you to reach resolution, and provide an estimate of cost. We will also answer any questions that you may have. There is no time constraint on the initial consultation.

If you require advice in relation to financial matters, we will ask you about the current assets and liabilities in both yours and your spouse/partner’s name. We will also ask you about the financial history of the relationship, including details of the assets and liabilities each of you had at the time you commenced residing together, any gifts or loans provided to either of you, and your respective incomes.

We understand that it may not be possible for you to have all of this information at the time of the initial conference, and itis not crucial, however, the more information you have, the more accurate advice we can provide. If you are unable to obtain information, we will provide advice about how that information can be obtained.

If you require advice in relation to parenting matters, we will ask you for details about the
children’s care arrangements during the course of the relationship, the current arrangements and any concerns that you may have in relation to your own parenting or the parenting of the other parent.

At the conclusion of the initial conference, you should have clarity about your situation and the process ahead of you.

Are there any time limits I need to know about?

If you wish to obtain a divorce you must be separated for 12 months before filing the Application for Divorce with the court. There is no time limit by when an Application for Divorce must be brought.

If you and your spouse have divorced, you have 12 months from the date of the divorce becoming final to commence proceedings for property settlement and/or spousal maintenance.

If you have separated from your de facto partner, you have 24 months from the date of the separation to commence proceedings for property settlement and/or spousal maintenance.