Criteria for Selecting a Divorce Attorney in Washington State

Question 1:

If I want the best attorney, shouldn't I hire a large law firm at a high cost?


The important criteria to focus on is what attorney will actually be representing you and working on the case?

Large law firms often charge high fees, expensive offices and staff, yet have inexperienced attorneys work on clients cases.

Why should someone pay a high attorney fee to have the case mainly worked on by an associate with only a few years or less of experience in family law? You should not have your case be the training ground for an attorney, especially if you are paying a high rate.

It is well known that young associates in a law firm to often work for relatively low wages while the "partners" in the firm make a substantial profit from the work.

There is typically only one attorney who will be in court to represent you. You want to make sure that the attorney doing the work in the office and representing you in court has many years of of experience in cases with your unique circumstances.

Large law firms typical have a laudry list of legal services they offer such as insurance defense that has little relation to family law.   In this case, the fact that you have hired a large firm with "experience" in other areas will have no relation to experience that you need to obtain the best results possible for you in a family law proceeding.

Finally, large law firms often have very high overhead costs for secretaries, paralegals, computer technicians and may have very expensive office space. These additional expenses will likely do little to assist you in your case.  Be aware also that large law firms also have paralegals do much of the work.

Question 2:

My spouse and I have a relatively high net worth. Will I be charged more than a person with much lower net worth?


Not necessarily. You should only pay for the work actually performed. In fact, it is unethical for an attorney to base their fee on a percentage of the assets in a divorce.

In many circumstances, cases with a relatively high net worth can be resolved at a lower cost because the parties are more willing to settle. There is simply no reason for a client that has substantial assets to be unfairly charged.

However, additional assets can result in additional attorney work required as well as requiring additional costs. For instance, if there are a number of houses involved that are owned by the parties, additional work will be required to have the houses assessed.

Question 3:

What are some general guidelines on how to select an attorney


You should select an attorney in a similar manner that you would select any other professional such as a doctor, dentist based on some of the following factors:

1) How many years has the attorney been practing family law? 5 Years? 10 years? 15 years?

2) Is family law the exclusive or primary focus of the attorney?

3) How many years has the attorney been practicing family law in the court in which your case is in?

4) If you have a small business, how many years has the attorney handled similar cases?

5) If you are in the military, how many years has the attorney handled cases involving military pensions. Has the attorney's orders been accepted by DFAS?

You should assess what you have at stake in your case. Are there children? Is there a house which equity needs to be divided? Is there a civilian or military pension or a 401k plan? Is there an issue of maintenance to be addressed? Is one spouse making considerably more than the other? Is there child support that will have to be paid?

You should focus primarily on your assessment of the attorney's ability and willingness to represent you well in court and the most likely to obtain favorable results through both negotiation and litigation at a reasonable cost.

You should seek an attorney who has a minimum of 5 to 10 years primarily in family law who has handled cases like yours or very similar to yours in the past. For instance, if you are retiring from the military, you want to make sure your attorney has had experience with the division, or resisting the division, of a military pension. Has the attorney previously divided a military pension?

Does the attorney have the time to spend on your case and take all the steps needed to maximize the result possible? Does the attorney use the latest technology technology to handle your case?

Does the attorney still have an active practice focused on family law or does the attorney try be a "jack of all legal trades"?

Does the attorney regularly attend court and feel comfortable in the courtroom if a dispute arises?

Is the case going to handled by the attorney you meet with, a junior attorney in the learning process, a secretary and/or paralegal? Will the attorney answer your question on the phone or will it be a non-attorney staff member?

Question 4: With all of the blank forms on the internet, Can't I just improvise and do my own divorce?

     Answer: The blank forms online are only a small part of the divorce process and the considerations for obtaining a dissolution. I have worked on dozens of cases where people attempted to represent themselves and obtained disastrous and harmful results.

Where there are children in a marriage, considerable assets and/or a retirement plan, the chances of one or both of the parties obtaining a poor result is very high. Sometimes the errors made are not found for years later (such as when one retires.)

An analogy is the case where someone might obtain dental instruments from ebay, a manual on dental procedures and attempts to perform their own dentistry.

The results are very likely to be poor and a great expense required to fix the damage done.

A skilled attorney in Washington is versed in Washington State law and how the Washington courts interpret the law. There are often additional considerations should the divorce concern real estate, retirement plans, or if one of the parties is, or has been in the military. Furthermore, Washington Civil Rules issued by the Washington Supreme Court must be followed if one is to receive relief from the court. Many counties, including Pierce, King and Kitsap County have local court rules issued by court system that must be strictly followed as well if one is going to obtain any relief from the court.

Finally, an improperly obtained divorce can ofetn be set aside by the court at a later time if something was done improperly. This can be very time consuming and expensive.

As a general principle, people are entitled to represent themselves in either criminal or civil court. However, whether it is a wise choice is another issues. A skilled Washington attorney typically has a four year undergraduate degree, three years of law school, a knowledge of Washington statutory law (RCWs), a knowledge of Washington case law (Washington State Supreme Court and Court of Appeals cases), the general Washington Civil Rules of Civil Procedure, and the local court rules of the county where he is representing the client. Finally, the attorney should know the law concerning real estate, if necessary and any applicable Federal Statutory and case law.

Question 4: In paying a retainer, should I agree to a large non-refundable retainer?

     Answer: Attorneys often have a non-refundable retainer when engaging a client. However, I generally do not use non-refundable retainers. I believe a fairer arrangement is to only charge the client for the work performed. If the attorney feels confident in his or her work, why should they be reluctant to refund the unused portion of the retainer?

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Law Office of Erik Bjornson
Attorney at Law
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Tacoma, WA 98402
Phone (253) 272-1434

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