Frequently I get calls by first time litigants who are unsure which attorney to choose for their family law case. Austin is full of attorneys, and with so many to pick from how does someone decide which attorney is right for them? If your budget is unlimited then the process of choosing an attorney becomes easier. If money is an issue then the process of finding a family law attorney that fits your budget becomes more difficult.
As a licensed private investigator who specializes in family law and as a Guardian ad Litem who has represented hundreds of children during the worst divorces imaginable over the last 13 years, I have been in a unique position to meet and work with many well-known, and sometimes not so well-known, attorneys in the Austin and Central Texas area. At various times, I have been for and against a particular attorney’s position, which can make me the apple of their eye or their stanch enemy. Because I am often placed in this position, I have gotten to know many attorneys in Austin on lots of different levels. I know many good attorneys and some not so good attorneys. Not only do I know the attorneys, I often know how they think, how they scheme, as well as their shortcomings.
When working at the Travis County Domestic Relations Office as a Guardian ad Litem. We would often group attorneys by tiers. I have no idea if the attorneys in Austin use this method of ranking between themselves, but for us as non-attorneys, it made it a little easier to categorize the kind of attorney that we were working with on a particular case. I do not want to suggest that the Domestic Relations Office would give preferential treatment to high powered attorneys – that was not the situation. However, the more powerful attorney represented a higher level of complexity and more experienced Guardians would generally be assigned to the case by management. Personally, I think this was a fair and prudent practice.
When I work with clients today as a private investigator, I continue to use this method of ranking when explaining which attorney may be the best for a particular client. Often times when working as a private investigator, our agency is the beginning of a potential family lawsuit. We gather evidence concerning cheating spouses or for concerns for children that lead people to a divorce or to a child custody action. After we gather the evidence, the client is left to decide their next step, which is often to obtain the best attorney possible, depending on their budget.
Other times, a client may already have an attorney on board and the other party has an attorney, too. As your private investigator, it can be invaluable to you that I know who the players are since I may know the particular attorneys and how they tend to handle their cases. I can sometimes give you insights that you will not find elsewhere.
The Attorney Tier System
I rank attorneys in a 3 tier system – 1 being the best and 3 being the least desirable. Keep in mind that these categories are somewhat subjective and different persons (like my ex-colleagues at the Domestic Relations Office) may rank a particular attorney in a different tier than I would. Despite the subjectivity of the Tier system, it gives the consumer at least something to go by when picking an attorney.
Third Tier Attorneys
There is not much for me to say about 3rd Tier attorneys except that I would never recommend one. The old adage that you get what you pay for holds true. Out of all the attorneys, they tend to charge the least amount and you get the least amount of services and results for your money as well.
Characteristics of a 3rd Tier attorney tends to be centered around personality factors and being generally incompetent. Some may even know the law well but their ability to follow through is lacking. They miss deadlines, forget appointments, write improper pleadings, and some are just plain indolent. They lack office staff (which may be one cause of missing appointments) and they may have personal problems which distracts their attention from working on your case. And just like everyone in the general population, a percentage may have mental health issues or have issues with certain medications or substances.
Other characteristics of a Tier 3 attorney may be due to the person’s age, either very young (we sometimes refer to them as baby attorney’s) or very old.
Caveat: Age should not be the sole determination when considering an attorney. I know of a few older attorneys (One in his 80’s) who are excellent attorneys – some of the best, and some of the younger attorneys can be very good as well. Keep in mind that many of the older Tier 1 attorneys were once young themselves. Again, it goes back to the personality and competency of the attorney, but age can be a factor. For the older attorney it can be more about senility (or perhaps they were a bad attorney to begin with) and for the younger attorney it can be more about being inexperienced and having to go up against a more experienced and seasoned attorney.
Lastly, some Tier 3 attorneys just don’t have the personality or the charisma like a Tier 1 or Tier 2 attorney. They may be soft spoken, meek, or poor at oral arguments. They tend to lack respect in the courtroom that you would commonly expect from an attorney.
Conversely, some attorneys are so aggressive that their emotions get in the way of them thinking clearly. They can be so aggressive that they are difficult to talk to or so stubborn that they may needlessly cause a great deal of conflict between the parties (which causes further litigation and costs to you) or cause problems with a Guardian ad Litem or the judge. During a jury trial, an overly aggressive attorney can alienate themselves from the jury or anger a judge during a bench trial. As their client, you may find either type of attorney difficult to consult with.
One advantage that you might find with a Tier 3 attorney is that they are less expensive. If the other party has a higher level attorney who costs substantially more, it is possible for you to bleed money from the other party’s war chest which can be effective in certain situations. However, this ploy is rather risky when considering the importance of the outcome of the case.
Caveat: If you have ever considered doing a case pro se (representing yourself), one of your main advantages is that there are relatively few costs for you, except if you wish to call expert witnesses. Although, you will not be on equal footing as the opposing party’s attorney with regards to legal procedures, it’s possible that you can run the other party out of money and hope that they will settle. I have seen this work on a few occasions but again, I would say that the strategy is risky.
Second Tier Attorneys
Unlike Tier 3 attorneys, I have some very good things to say about Tier 2 attorneys. They are typically good solid attorneys that can go up successfully against a Tier 1 attorney in many cases. Although, they may not be the Cadillacs of the attorney’s world, they can certainly get you down the road in an efficient manner. As far as numbers, the majority of family law attorneys who are in practice are Tier 2 attorneys.
I also delineate the Tier 2 rating by subcategories by giving a plus or minus or giving a straight Tier 2 rating. So, a Tier -2 is a little closer to a Tier 3, but regardless they are not the same as a Tier 3 and should not be considered in the Tier 3 category. A tier -2 attorney is still a good attorney but may not be quite as talented as a Tier 2 or a Tier +2. Likewise, a Tier +2 attorney is a little closer to being a Tier 1 but they are not quite in the same category as a full fledge Tier 1. Although, I rate tier 2’s with pluses and minuses, as long as the attorney is in the Tier 2 category, you can be fairly certain that they are decent attorneys who can keep up with a Tier 1. The differences in the Tier 2 subcategories are fairly minimal. The main thing is you want to make sure that you are not accidentally considering a Tier 3 attorney as a Tier 2 attorney. The higher the subcategory rating, the less chance that you will inadvertently pick a Tier 3 attorney – which of course is a major mistake.
Tier 2 attorneys tend to have more office staff and may have other attorneys in the same office as partners or associates on which to draw on for assistance and advice than a Tier 3 attorney. This is not a sure fire way of determining a particular tier of an attorney but it is a consideration. Some good Tier 2 attorneys may be solo or have minimal staff but the difference is that they have connections or associates that they can easily consult with if they need to. Some tier 2 attorneys may even work out of their house, but again it is something to consider when categorizing attorneys. These considerations may be where the plus or minus sub ratings comes into play.
In general, a solid Tier 2 attorney will have a reasonable amount of office staff to handle the influx of business that you would expect a good attorney to have. Oddly enough, the other consideration when determining the tier of an Austin attorney is where they are located. An office location near the Travis County Courthouse is a fairly good sign of a successful attorney (actually many of the Tier 1 attorneys have offices in this area). It is prime real estate and it takes a successful attorney to afford and maintain an office in that area. Keep in mind that these are generalities and not a hard and fast rule when determining the Tier of an attorney. Also, attorneys who have offices in large or expensive office buildings or in expensive parts of town is another consideration for determining the tier of an attorney.
One exception are attorneys who work with particular ethnic populations. Since some attorneys specialize in particular ethnic groups, it is reasonable that they office in the areas of their clientele. Because of the location of their clients, attorneys who specialize in certain ethnic populations may not have an elaborate office from which they work from. However, this does not mean that they are not good solid attorneys. Additionally, since the upkeep of their office is less to maintain, they can often pass some of these savings off to their clients. Again, I am generalizing here and I certainly do not wish to imply a stereotype that a certain ethnic group is not affluent. However, certain parts of Austin tend to be less affluent than other parts.
When I was in Graduate School for Counseling, the professors stressed that the success of a counselor was often times due to the individual’s personality and had less to do with a particular technique. I think this is also true of attorneys. This is one reason for a consumer to shop for an attorney and to meet them in person before making a decision. It is important as a consumer that you are able to get along with your attorney and that you both have similar points of view. After all, you will be spending quite a bit of time with this person (as well as money) so it is important that you like one another.
Over the course of a highly conflicted divorce or child custody battle, it is likely that you will have to discuss with your attorney some of your deepest and darkest secrets, some of which may be embarrassing to you. You truly need to be able to talk to your attorney and to trust them without the attorney being overly judgmental. Believe me, everyone has skeletons in their closets (I quickly learned this as a Guardian ad Litem and as a private investigator) and in family law the attorneys and even the judges expect for these things to come out and are rarely shocked no matter what shortcoming you may have. Tier 2 attorneys and above tend to have a knack to make you feel at ease.
Thus, if an attorney can impress you with their ability to communicate in an effective manner, they are also likely able to use this ability to get their point across in court. A Tier 2 attorney has a certain amount of charisma, are diplomatic when the time is right, and can be assertive or sometimes aggressive when they need to be. The key words here are when they “need to be and when the time is right.”
A good attorney needs to be able to judge a certain situation and respond in a calculated manner. Not every situation warrants a highly aggressive response. A more diplomatic response may be more effective and provide better results. This not only goes back to the personality of the attorney, but also their skill as an attorney to pick up on social queues and provide a measured response.
Lastly, a Tier 2 attorney is up on the law. They meet deadlines and they write quality pleadings. They avoid potential landmines (because they can anticipate them) which family law cases are littered with- and they are thrifty regarding expenses – they don’t set hearings and then have to cancel them because they did not follow procedure, which you end up having to pay for. Tier 2 attorneys will develop strategies ahead of time and will not try to wing it during court. They also take notes and will have their documents organized in a way that they can quickly refer to while in court. They will also consider the importance of bringing in other experts to help bolster your case in court and will have a list of experts that they can draw on.
First Tier Attorneys
First Tier attorneys have all the qualities of the 2nd Tier attorneys and then some. They are like Tier 2 attorneys on steroids. One difference to consider is price. Tier 1 attorneys hourly rates can start at $300-$350 an hour on up. Don’t be surprised that a Tier 1 attorney could charge at the high end $500 an hour. You can expect a Tier 2 attorney’s retainer to start around $5000 whereas a Tier 1 attorney’s retainer starts at least at $10,000 – $40,000 – it could be higher depending on the case. On occasions, some Tier 1 attorneys may work with you regarding their initial retainer.
Many of the Tier 1 Attorneys have some kind of a political connection. In the past they may have been a judge, or friends with judges or legislators presently or in the past. They might have been a CEO or lead attorney for a large corporation. They might often donate money to judge’s campaigns or other politician’s endeavors. Politicians may tend to gravitate around Tier 1 attorneys. Some upper level Tier 1 attorneys will throw large and expensive parties during the holidays with politicians and judges in attendance. Simply said, Tier 1 attorneys are well connected and when they walk into a courtroom they command respect and the judge might be a little less likely to be dismissive of their position. With all of this said, I do not want to suggest that a Tier 1 attorney is given preferential treatment from the judge because I don’t think they are. It has more to do with respect than anything else, and for attorneys respect is important.
Not all Tier 1 attorneys are as politically connected as described above but develop their Tier 1 status by being excellent attorneys over years of practice, mostly going up against other Tier 1 attorneys. They develop a reputation which puts them in a class above Tier 2 attorneys. They are skillful at law, are likely Board certified in Family Law, and can be master strategists. Most importantly, they have a reputation for winning cases with high profile and influential clients.
Tier 1 attorneys are sharp, are organized, and they often have a full complement of office staff and paralegals. They return phone calls or have their paralegal respond in a timely manner. They plan their cases out and will meet with their clients prior to hearings to develop a responsive strategy.
Tier 1 attorneys are whirlwinds at filing motions and generating paperwork to keep the opposing party off balance. They are not afraid to hold depositions or have the other party answer interrogatories. Of course, Tier 2 attorneys can do these things, but Tier 1’s have a real knack for it. This is one of the reasons that Tier 1’s are so expensive. They pull out all the stops and they have the expertise and the staff to put their plans into action. They can literally bury the other party in paperwork and have them jump through all kinds of hoops, essentially making the life of the other party miserable.
They are experts at developing cases through the use of expert witnesses and may parade one expert witness after another in court which produces a kind of layering effect – essentially having all the expert witnesses saying similar things which points to the same conclusion for the point they are trying to make. This again is another reason why Tier 1’s require large retainers.
Lastly, Tier 1 attorneys tend to have charisma and a personality that makes their arguments quite persuasive. They are calculating in the words they choose and in their actions. Their arguments can be quite effective and they are quick to pick up on inconsistencies in the evidence and will exploit this to their advantage. Some Tier 1 attorneys are just plain sneaky and will think of strategies that others fail to consider. They can be exceedingly intelligent and they have years of experience to draw upon. For the younger Tier 1 attorneys, they can make up for some of their lack of experience (though, they usually have quite a bit of experience anyway) by their intelligence, personality, and having a more experience colleague to consult with.
Please keep in mind that many of the points made in this paper are generalities. How good a particular attorney depends a lot on the individual attorney and how well you as a client mesh with him or her. One of the best ways to pick an attorney is to meet them first and decide if that attorney meets your needs. If you get bad vibes from a particular attorney, there are plenty more for you to choose from, especially if you reside in Austin.
Lastly, please do not consider anything in this paper as legal advice. If something you read in this article conflicts with what your attorney advises you to do, you should follow your attorney’s advice. Your attorney will have a perspective on your given situation that this article cannot hope to foresee.
However, the information provided here is meant to give you a perspective from both an experienced Guardian ad litem of 13 years, and by a licensed private investigator who specializes in family law matters. Hopefully, you can use some of the information included here in conjunction with information you obtain from your attorney.