Divorce is a stressful experience, but having the right lawyer to guide you through the process can make it more tolerable and ensure that you protect your rights every step of the way. Of course, the big question is: How do I find the right lawyer?

Get a reliable referral

A good place to start is by asking friends or relatives who are divorced what they think of the lawyer who represented them. Because everyone's case is different, don't focus on what their lawyer may have achieved for them in terms of alimony, child support or child custody, but rather on how responsive the lawyer was. Did he or she return phone calls promptly, explain things in plain English and display a genuine sense of compassion and concern?

Get comfortable

Your relationship with your divorce lawyer will be as intimate as your relationship with your primary care doctor - maybe more. You're going to lay bare your emotions, your vulnerabilities, your fears and your finances. If you don't fundamentally like or trust your lawyer, if something about the person makes you hold back, your divorce will not go well.

So, be sure to have an in-depth meeting with any prospective lawyer before you retain him, and pay close attention to any red flags that come up in that meeting: he insists on doing all the talking or he pooh-poohs your emotional issues. As with most relationships, if it's not good at the beginning, it's only going to get worse later.

Hire an expert

Of course, a divorce lawyer is more than a hand-holder. He or she needs professional competence and experience to adequately represent you. I, personally, would only hire someone who devotes at least 50 percent of his law practice to divorce, custody or other family law matters.

It's certainly possible for someone to handle one or two divorce cases a year and do a great job with them, but why take a chance? With any luck, this will be the only divorce lawyer you'll ever need in your life. Go with a pro.

But even among divorce specialists, some are better than others. One indication of whether a lawyer is among the top people in her field is whether she gives lectures or teaches classes to other lawyers. Most states require lawyers to take annual refresher courses, and typically only the most respected lawyers in any given field will teach them. Similarly, a leadership position in the family law group of the state bar association is a good indication of professional accomplishment and peer recognition.

Some lawyers restrict their divorce practices to representing only men or only women. There's nothing wrong with that, but I doubt it gives such lawyers any additional insights or expertise. If a woman feels more comfortable with a female lawyer, fine; as I said, it's vital that the lawyer and the client are compatible in a personal sense. But there's no reason that a woman needs a female lawyer, or a man needs a male lawyer.

Be reasonable about fees

Legal fees are a big issue in most divorce cases, but you shouldn't automatically choose a lawyer based on his fees. A higher hourly rate does not guarantee superior competence, but a low rate is not necessarily a bargain. You don't want to overpay, but you want your case handled properly.

If you're served with divorce papers totally out of the blue, take a deep breath and don't panic. You still have time to get recommendations, check out credentials, meet with prospective candidates and find the lawyer who will be there for you when you need someone on your side. And you'll never need someone on your side more than you will in a divorce.

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