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How to Find and Afford an Attorney in a Family Law Case

Court How-Tos (Civil Procedure)

This article discusses when to hire an attorney in a family law case, how to choose one, and options for affordable legal representation.

If you need a lawyer for a family law case, you will usually be responsible for hiring and paying them. However, searching for and selecting an attorney can be overwhelming and expensive. This article explains how to search for and work with family law attorneys, and ways to make hiring one more affordable.

Do I need a family law attorney for my case?

Spouses and parents in a family law case can represent themselves in their lawsuit. This is known as “self-representation” or being a “pro se litigant.” A pro se litigant may file, or open, lawsuits, respond to lawsuits that are filed against them, and present evidence to the court.

In agreed cases, meaning the spouses and parents agree about the parenting plan for their children and the division of their property and debts (if the case is a divorce), many individuals can represent themselves.

There are several guides for these types of situations:

If my case is contested, or we have no agreement, would it be important for a spouse or parent to have a lawyer?

Yes. Divorce cases, for example, can be complicated and your rights and interest in property and money may be at risk. This is also true if you have a high-asset divorce, with lots of property.

When children are involved, your rights as a parent, including conservatorship (what some call custody), possession and access (i.e., visitation), and child support and medical support are all addressed. You want to make sure you have an advocate to help voice your position, especially if the case is a high-conflict case.

It is really important to talk with a family law attorney if any of the following are true:

  • Your case is contested. In other words, you do not have an agreement about your parenting plan or your property and debt division.
  • You are afraid for your or your children’s safety.
  • There are or have been incidents or allegations of physical violence or threats of physical violence between you and the other parent.
  • Your spouse or the other parent has a lawyer.
  • You or your spouse have a house, retirement, business, other valuable property, or a lot of debt.
  • You believe you may be entitled to spousal maintenance.
  • You and your spouse have a child with a disability, or your child will need care and support once they become an adult.
  • You or your spouse have an ongoing bankruptcy or are planning to file for bankruptcy.
  • You are in a same-sex marriage, and you and your spouse have a child, but there is no adoption or other court order stating that you are both legal parents.

How do I find a family law attorney?

Lawyers in Texas must be licensed and in good standing to practice law in Texas. Questions about attorneys and their status can be found on the State Bar of Texas website at www.texasbar.com.

An attorney licensed in Texas can practice in the entire state. But often, clients look for attorneys who are local to their city or county. This is helpful, for example, so that the client is not paying for the lawyer’s travel time. Additionally, attorneys who practice in front of the same courts and judges may be better equipped to help you navigate through the lawsuit process. They may be better informed of local rules, court rules, or a court’s preferences.

The State Bar of Texas has a “Find a Lawyer” service. Under the “Find a Lawyer” tab, the website has a search function that allows you to search for attorneys by location, area of practice, name, and other features. The State Bar also provides information on how to select a lawyer.

You can also reach out to local bar associations or call toll-free 800-252-9690 to reach the State Bar of Texas Lawyer Referral and Information Service.

Many spouses and parents use online search engines, like Google, to search for private attorneys. Many will look at attorney reviews or check the attorney’s social media page or website. Word of mouth or asking a credible friend may be an option for getting an attorney’s name, especially if they have been involved in a legal situation like yours. You may also speak with a professional person in your life, such as a doctor, religious leader, therapist, banker, accountant, or other professional whom you know and trust.

If you have questions about a particular attorney, you can contact the State Bar of Texas at 800-204-2222.

Can a paralegal or notary public give me legal advice for a lower cost?

No. Only attorneys can give legal advice. Paralegals, legal assistants, and notary publics are all nonlawyers. They cannot prepare documents on your behalf. If they do, they may be engaged in the unauthorized practice of law.

Paralegals and other legal staff in a law office may be able to assist with legal work, but a licensed attorney must supervise it. This means the attorney instructed them to do the work, and the attorney is responsible for the final work product.

How do I choose an attorney?

Once you have a list of attorneys that you may want to consider hiring, do your research. The State Bar of Texas website maintains a Find-a-Lawyer directory with profiles for every licensed Texas attorney. The directory lists public disciplinary actions, if any, taken against the attorney.

Many attorneys or law firms have websites where you can read about their practice areas, experience, organizational affiliations, awards, or other certifications. Some attorneys will list themselves as being “board-certified” in one or more specific areas of law. A board-certified lawyer has met criteria established by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in a particular practice area. You may search for board-certified lawyers in different Texas law practice areas on the TBLS website.

The best step to take is to meet with or interview the attorney. This is known as a consultation. This will give you the opportunity to make sure the attorney’s services are best aligned with what you are looking for. You can also see if you feel comfortable with the attorney.

What questions should I ask when scheduling an appointment or consultation?

Before you make an appointment to consult with an attorney, call the offices of the lawyers on your list. Some attorneys or firms may also offer a chat service where you can message them online. You should know that contacting attorneys through these means does not create an attorney-client relationship.

You will have to share the other spouse’s or parent’s name (legal and any aliases) so that the attorney can run a conflict check. This is standard and part of an attorney’s ethical rules. After speaking with the other spouse or parent, attorneys cannot consult with an opposing party (spouse or parent). Attorneys cannot represent both spouses or both parents in a family law case. Even if there is an agreement, the attorney may only represent one party.

When you connect, briefly explain your legal issue and consider asking the following questions:

  • Does the attorney practice in the county where your case would be?
  • Does the attorney have experience with this kind of legal issue?
  • Does the attorney charge for an initial interview? If so, what is the cost?
  • If you believe your legal issue is routine or uncontested: Does the attorney have a standard fee for this kind of problem? What does the fee cover?
  • If your legal issue is more complicated or the attorney does not have a standard fee: What is the attorney’s hourly fee or rate?
  • Does the lawyer provide a written agreement describing fees and the services provided for those fees?

Keep a list of all the information you have gathered. Think about the answers you received from the lawyers or their representatives. You can schedule appointments with as many attorneys as you need.

How do I prepare for my consultation and what should I take?

You must be ready to share everything with the attorney. Your attorney needs to know “the good, bad, and the ugly” to advise you properly, create a plan of action, and adequately represent you if you decide to hire them. You can feel secure in being honest and upfront with the attorney because your communications and information shared will be protected and privileged. This means that the attorney cannot share the information you provide unless you permit them to share it.

At the interview, most attorneys will request that you meet with them on your own. If someone drives you or goes for support, they usually will be asked to wait outside. This is to protect your privileged communications with the attorney. Allowing someone else in the room could be a waiver of that privilege.

Before your meeting, ask the attorney what they want you to bring or have with you. Some lawyers may ask you to deliver written materials before your first interview to have adequate time to review them or to provide copies at the initial consultation. At the very least, you should bring the following:

  • Your driver’s license or a form of identification.
  • If the case has been opened, all pleadings or motions that you and the other parent have filed.
  • If the attorney is charging an interview fee, an acceptable form of payment.

You do not have to hire the first attorney you interview. Attorneys cannot pressure you into hiring them. The choice is yours.

What questions should I ask the attorney during my consultation?

The attorney should have an agenda to discuss the process of the case, the issues, and what you would like to see happen with the outcome of your case. Understand the attorney may not be able to accomplish everything you want because of the facts or the laws that apply in your case. No attorney can guarantee they will “win” your case or guarantee a particular outcome.

These are a few sample questions you may want to ask:

  • Are you experienced in my type of legal case?
  • Will you or one of your associates be handling my case?
  • Will you regularly contact me about my case’s status?
  • Can I see a copy of your fee agreement or contract for legal representation and services?
  • Will I be provided with copies of all important documents, and will there be a charge for those documents?
  • Will I be able to make the final decision on my case?
  • What methods do you use to avoid court action, such as mediation?
  • What is your estimate of the time needed to complete my case?
  • What will be required financially to hire or retain the attorney?
  • What are the grounds for terminating legal representation by either the attorney or the client?

What type of fee agreements exist in an attorney-client contract for a family law case?

Private attorneys can be expensive. An attorney's hourly rate or fees will depend on many factors. These factors include the economy, how contested the case is, the amount of time spent on your case, the difficulty of the work, the skill required, any time constraints or deadlines, and the customary fee charged by other attorneys in your area for similar work. An attorney's fees may also vary depending upon their years of practice, experience, reputation, and ability. 

You can negotiate with an attorney on their hourly rate or ask if they would be willing to offer a reduced rate. You can also offer different payment arrangements. Keep in mind the attorney does not have to agree. Whatever the arrangement will be, make sure it is in writing. The most common types of fee agreements are: 

Retainers

Most attorneys charge a retainer fee or an advance deposit. Usually, these retainers are several thousand dollars. Some lawyers may work with that amount through the entire case; others may require that you replenish the retainer always to have a certain amount of money held in trust. This is known as an "evergreen" retainer. You should know what your retainer will cover. Many attorneys offer refundable retainers where they refund the portion of the advance deposit that was unearned.

Payment Plans

Other attorneys may be willing to accept a payment plan. This means you may be able to make monthly or installment payments towards a fixed retainer amount. Another payment plan may require you to make payments throughout the entire pendency of your case.

You and the attorney can negotiate what the payment plan will be. You can suggest paying half of a retainer and then making monthly payments after. You could also offer several lump sum payments every two to three months. It will be up to the attorney and you to come up with a payment plan.

Flat Fees

Occasionally, an attorney may ask for a "flat fee." This arrangement is a fee that will cover the attorney's services regardless of the time the attorney spends working on the case. You and the attorney should be clear about what the flat fee covers. If this is an arrangement offered to you, it is essential to ask whether there will be a refund if the attorney does not spend as much time on your case as provided for by the retainer.

Contingency Fees Are Not Offered in Family Law

Family law attorneys cannot take family law cases on a contingency fee basis. A contingency fee is a type of fee arrangement where the attorney agrees that payment of legal fees is contingent upon or depends on the case's successful outcome. The lawyer here would take an agreed percentage of your settlement money. Family law cases are often not measured by success in the way personal injury or criminal defense cases are. 

Exchange for Property or Services

Some family law attorneys may be willing to take real estate or other property or services in exchange for their legal representation. You have to ask the attorney if they would be willing to consider this. They will likely ask if any debt is attached to the property or if you are the owner and have the right to make such a transaction.

Pro Bono Representation

Sometimes, a private attorney will offer free legal services or pro bono representation. This is a personal decision the attorney must make, but you can always ask.

Look to this legal directory for legal aid organizations serving your area.

What other expenses can attorneys bill for?

Most attorneys bill for all services they or their staff provide in their legal representation of your case.

This includes but is not limited to drafting, meetings, telephone calls, emails, text messages, correspondence with the court or other agencies, staffing meetings with firm employees, mediation, and court appearances. 

If they employ paralegals, legal assistants, or other staff, most firms will also have hourly rates for those individuals. Any work completed for your case will be billed at that person’s rate. These rates should be included in your fee agreement, so you know in advance what the cost will be.

Many family law attorneys bill in 6-minute increments. This means that any action taken will automatically be billed at 6 minutes, even if less time was used.

Attorneys also usually expect the client to pay court costs (filing fees, copy fees, service fees) and to reimburse them for any out-of-pocket expenses, such as travel, parking, or copying expenses. You should ask the attorney if these additional expenses will be required and ensure the fee agreement states the same.

How can I keep attorney’s fees and costs manageable?

You may be able to keep attorney's fees and costs manageable by doing some preparation work. For example, you may make copies, create binders, or organize evidence instead of having your attorney or their paralegal do the work.

You also can minimize communication but within reason. Every client should have access to their attorney, and every attorney should maintain contact with them to keep them updated on case status. For example, insist you be advised of updates each month instead of weekly. This may also mean that you do not contact your attorney whenever the other parent or spouse does something you do not like.

As a client, you have the right to ask for a written explanation, including itemized billing invoices or statements, of what the lawyer did during the hours worked on your case and how much each service costs.

Can I ask for limited scope representation in a family law case?

Yes, you can look into limited scope representation for your family law case.

Limited scope representation, or unbundling services, is when an attorney agrees to represent someone for a limited service, like drafting a document or making a court appearance. It is not full representation where the attorney handles every aspect of your case.

This arrangement can allow for adequate legal representation in some instances but not all. You should speak with the attorney to see if limited scope representation is a service they are willing to offer.

How do I decide whether to hire an attorney?

Based on your first interview, you should consider the following factors before agreeing to hire an attorney:

  • Could you communicate effectively with the attorney?
  • Were you comfortable with the attorney’s demeanor, attention, and plan for your case?
  •  Was the attorney clear and easy to understand?
  • Are the attorney’s fees reasonable in comparison with other attorneys' charges?
  • Did the lawyer give clear explanations of how they will keep you informed about your case?

You should be satisfied with the meeting and the information provided. If not, do not hire that attorney. Keep looking.

Finally, before you sign a contract with an attorney, read the entire contract. Make sure you understand it. If you do not understand it, ask questions and communicate with the attorney. Make sure everything you and the attorney agreed to is in writing.

The attorney-client relationship is not created until a contract is signed and a fee is paid. This means that the attorney does not have an obligation to represent you until these two things are done, unless you agreed to another arrangement.

Should I take on debt to pay for an attorney?

When hiring an attorney and signing an agreement, you enter into a contract to pay the attorney. Failure to pay may result in a breach of contract, and the attorney may have a cause of action to sue you for any unpaid attorney’s fees. Some attorneys may require you to name a guarantor or someone who will pay their fees if you do not. In this instance, the attorney could also come after them for payment.

You must consider your financial resources and ability to pay before incurring any debt to pay a private family law attorney. This includes paying attorney’s fees by credit card or personal loan.

Remember, parents and spouses can represent themselves in Texas. While it is not always ideal, you do not want to put yourself in a position where you also have to worry about debt or dealing with another lawsuit from the attorney.

Do I have to hire the attorney right away?

You do not have to hire an attorney right away. But you must understand that interviewing an attorney does not create an attorney-client relationship. Most attorneys will require you to sign a contract and pay a retainer fee before they begin working on your case.

Often, a parent can file the lawsuit and begin the process on their own. If the process becomes too complicated or the other parent contests (disagrees with) the lawsuit, you may need to consider hiring an attorney at that time. If the other parent hires an attorney of their own, you may also want to reconsider hiring an attorney to represent you.

Can I get a court-appointed attorney in my family law case?

In private family law cases, parents are not entitled to a court-appointed attorney to represent them. This includes cases like divorces, suits affecting the parent-child relationship, modifications, and some enforcements. Therefore, you are responsible for your own attorney’s fees. Read about the right to a lawyer in a family law case.

In certain situations, after a lawsuit has started, one party can ask the court to award a judgment against the opposing party to pay for their attorney’s fees. This is known as “fee-shifting.” Fee-shifting statutes and rules will vary, so you should discuss with an attorney if this is a request you can make in your case.

Read more about fee-shifting attorney’s fees in family law cases.

When is a parent entitled to a court-appointed attorney?

Child Protection Cases

When the Department of Family and Protective Services (DFPS), Child Protective Services (CPS), is involved in your case and you are a party to a legal procedure in a suit by a government entity to protect the health and safety of your child, you may be eligible for a court-appointed attorney.

For help and information on dealing with CPS, call the Family Helpline and speak with an experienced child protection attorney about Child Protective Services (CPS) issues in Texas. Also, see I want help and information on dealing with Child Protective Services.

Enforcement of Child Support or Medical Support

If you are an obligor (i.e., the parent paying child support) and the Office of the Attorney General has filed an enforcement against you for past due child support or medical support, you may also be entitled to a court-appointed attorney. 

An enforcement action is filed when there is reason to believe a party has not followed the orders of the court. If it is proved that a party has disregarded the court's order, that person may be held, or found to be, in contempt of court.  A party that is in contempt of court may be ordered to pay fines, be incarcerated, or the court may create orders that specifically fit the facts of the case.

If a court determines that an obligor may be facing incarceration as a result of an enforcement proceeding, the court must inform that parent of their right to be represented by an attorney, if they do not already have an attorney. However, the parent must show they are unable to pay for an attorney and that they are facing potential incarceration as a result of the enforcement suit. Read Texas Family Code 157.163.

During representation, what will I be expected to do?

Most fee agreements or contracts for legal services and representation will list out what your obligations are and what is expected of you as a client. Make sure to follow all of these instructions carefully. If you do not understand them, make sure you ask the attorney and get clarification until you do understand.

Generally, an attorney will require that you make yourself available and be easy to contact. This means keeping your attorney updated with any changes in your contact information, like cell phone numbers and email addresses.

You should also keep your lawyer informed of any changes or if anything happens during the representation. You should be reasonable and manage your expectations on what an attorney can and cannot do during representation. You should not expect your attorney to take any course of action that is not supported by the facts or governing law. On the other hand, the attorney should be reasonable, too. They should keep you informed and help explain the process and what is going on as—after all, that is why you hired them. They have traveled these roads before, and this may be your first time in a lawsuit or in court. Ask them to explain things and to help you understand!

What should I do if I have a problem with my attorney?

If you have a problem with your attorney, your first step should be to discuss the concern with them. If done by phone call, follow up with a written message that way it is documented in writing. You may be able to work out any issues this way.

If addressing the concern directly with the attorney does not resolve your issue, you can reach out to the State Bar of Texas Client-Attorney Assistance Program or CAAP. You can fill out a Request for Assistance and either mail it to P.O. Box 12487, Austin, Texas 78711-2487, email it to caap@texasbar.com, or fax it to 512-427-4442. You can also call CAAP toll free at 800-932-1900.

CAAP is a confidential statewide dispute resolution service. CAAP’s job is to help facilitate communication and encourage productive dialogue between Texas lawyers and their clients. In doing so, they can help Texas attorneys and their clients resolve minor concerns, disagreements, or misunderstandings impacting the attorney-client relationship.

If the problem occurs before your case is settled or resolved in court, you should expect to pay a portion of your retainer or fee to the lawyer for time already spent. Make sure you read your contract about how this process will work.

What happens if I no longer want my attorney to continue representation?

If the problems between you and your attorney cannot be worked out, it is your right to fire your attorney. You also can decide whether you want to hire another attorney to represent you.

You should read your contract or fee agreement and follow any instructions on how to give written notice for terminating legal services and representation. At that time, you can also request all itemized billing statements and invoices to see if you may have any retainer money available. If the withdrawal occurs before your case is settled or resolved in court, you should expect to pay the lawyer a portion of your retainer or fee for time already spent. Make sure you read your contract about how this process will work.

The attorney will file a motion for withdrawal of counsel, and a judge will need to sign a court order allowing the attorney’s withdrawal. If you decide to hire another attorney, your new attorney can file a motion to substitute as your new legal counsel. The judge will need to sign a court order to allow the change in legal representation.

The attorney has an obligation to return your file. If you believe your attorney has not acted in your best interests, neglected your matter, or done something illegal, unethical, or improper, you may wish to file a grievance against your attorney. Learn about Texas’s attorney grievance process at texasbar.com/grievance or by calling toll-free 800-932-1900.

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