How to Find & Choose the Best Child Custody Attorney (2021 Guide)

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How to Find & Choose the Best Child Custody Attorney (2021 Guide)

This is the best, most comprehensive guide on how to find and choose a child custody attorney.

That’s not just my opinion; I can back this statement up.

I’ve personally retained five different attorneys during my ten years in family court, the vast majority of which was spent gaining custody and more parenting time with my daughter.

Finding my ideal attorney (attorney #5) was crucial to my success in gaining full custody and fighting off frivolous attempts by my ex-girlfriend and her family to prevent me from doing so.

I also worked with several child custody and divorce attorneys to develop this framework. They told me what they wish their prospective clients did when in the initial discovery phase, and I reverse engineered that into what you (the prospective client) should do to find a perfect match.

I wrote this piece to give you a detailed, step-by-step instructional that you can follow to actually find and retain the best child custody attorney specific for your case.

I know of nothing better, or more well tested to work. This process has already been shared and put into practice hundreds of times by men across the country wanting the best possible legal representation.

But remember—this guide is ONLY for those seeking the best possible attorney for their child custody case. It can also be applied to other areas of family law or civil cases, but it’s not specific to anything outside of child custody issues.

Please don’t use this framework for a murder charge or anything else that can put you away for a dime. This is family court we’re talking about here, not criminal.

Step 1: Determining if You Need a Child Custody Attorney

Most other guides (and people’s advice) to choosing an attorney skip right over this part.

American culture engrains in all of us that anytime we come up against a legal snafu, regardless if it’s because someone bumped into your car in the parking lot, or if someone stole from you, is to immediately “lawyer up.”

How many times have you ever heard in the movies from a character foaming at the mouth, “you’ll be hearing from my lawyer!!!”

It’s a statement made as an intimidation tactic by people with big egos and little emotional intelligence.

If you’re going through a divorce, separation, child custody, or child support dispute, you do NOT automatically need to hire a lawyer.

In fact, recent data (as of 2021) shows that 96% of child custody cases are resolved by the parents without a family court intervention and didn’t go to trial.

In other words, there was no need for the judge to decide on who gets custody, just to approve the order based on the agreement drawn up by the parents.

Jumping the gun and hiring an attorney right away could complicate things and make them worse, especially if your ex doesn’t already have an attorney and is willing to try to work things out amicably.

In other words, don’t bring a gun to a knife fight. It’s completely unnecessary and an aggression tactic that won’t give you the upper hand.

Hiring an attorney should ALWAYS be a last resort. The family court system simply exists to serve people who cannot come to an agreement on their own.

The family law statutues exist to regulate human behavior.

Judges are the referees that decide on how those statutes will be applied based on the situation (and your behavior).

And the family law attorneys are our talking heads when we’ve lost the ability (or willingness) to communicate on our own.

Always try to solve whatever problems you have outside of court. Because once you enter that arena, you are playing roulette with your life and your kids.

General Rules to Determine if You Should Hire an Attorney:

  1. If you can afford a lawyer for your child custody case AND you have a pending court date, you should hire a lawyer ASAP.
  2. If your ex has already hired a lawyer, you should hire a lawyer.
  3. If anything has already been filed against you in family court, and you don’t exactly understand what the implications are or what to do, hire a lawyer.
  4. If none of the above apply, it’s good you’re already thinking about the possibility of hiring a lawyer, but it might be too soon (keep reading).
  5. If you want to go Pro se (represent yourself in court) just out of your spite for lawyers or the “system”, you’re going to have a bad time.

I won’t go into detail in the post about representing yourself in court, but that is always an option if you have LOTS of time and enjoy researching statutes and writing legal responses to any motion or petition that is filed. It’s a much more difficult road and not a good choice for most people, but it’s possible.

But if you meet any of the criteria above, my advice is this: this is NOT the time to DIY. It’s not a weekend project. This is not a hobby. You cannot “tinker” or “play around” in family court.

You have ONE chance to get this right.

ONE judgment or court order can change the trajectory of your life and your kids’ forever.

You want the best possible outcome, not a bargain.

You may think that you’ll hire a discount attorney or go Pro se to start, and if it doesn’t work you’ll hire a real professional later.

But, consider this…

Would you try to remove your own kidney and if it didn’t work out, then go find a surgeon?

No, of course not.

So, take this decision seriously.

Which attorney you decide to hire (if you do) will be one of the most important decisions you will make in your life. Possibly the most important.

So read carefully and make a decision with confidence.

Step 2: Determining What Type of Attorney You Want

The most common advice I see on the internet, and what I heard over and over again when I started out down this path was, “get the most aggressive, expensive attorney you can afford!”

Turns out, that is horrible advice, and following that could be detrimental to your case while dragging it out, and costing you more.

Before you even start to look for an attorney, you need to determine what type you’ll be looking for.

And I don’t mean what their specialty is or in what area they practice.

You’ll be working with a family law attorney that specializes in custody issues. That’s a given.

Within that, there are 3 primary groups of attorneys I met across my time spent tangled in the family court system.

Let’s dive into each type.

The “Do No Harm” Attorney

This is the attorney that takes a passive approach to all their cases and does the minimum required. They are essentially over compensated paralegals and add little to no strategic value to your case.

They essentially want to do no harm to your case, they just want to do the legally required minimum and get it done.

They will represent you in court, file the needed paperwork, and ensure you aren’t breaking any laws. They are not litigators, and probably not great mediators. They just exist, and won’t be making any miracles happen.

If you have a no-contest divorce, or a simple matter to resolve, this type of attorney is fine to retain.

But for contested child custody disputes, this is not the type to have in your corner.

The “Line Stepper” Attorney

AKA the “bulldog” or “pit bull.” The hyperaggressive attorney that slams their fists on the table in the courtroom, files frivolous motions and petitions, and requests endless extensions to draw out the case. They know no bounds and are always going too far without any regard for the consequences.

Even Judges hate these types of attorneys and guess what?

So will you if you hire one.

They love highly contested divorces and will continue to douse lighter fluid on the flames of your case as long as they can so they can continue to rack up the fees and keep you on the hamster wheel of divorce.

They make decisions based on what’s best for their ego, not what’s best for your case, you, or your children.

If your ex retained one of these types of lawyers, and you do too, expect it to play out like watching two junkyard dogs fight over a bone while you stand idly by.

It’s a sad scene to watch, can’t be stopped once it’s started unless you give up, and typically only ends with both attorneys winning (in the form of draining all of your and your ex’s funds), and the kids are left with financially ruined, emotionally scarred, resentful parents.

Stay away from this type of attorney at all costs.

If everyone fought fire with fire, the entire world would go up in smoke.

— Lemony Snicket

The “Do Right, Get Right” Attorney

It took me nearly 5 years to find my “Do Right, Get Right” attorney. From the very start, she took a genuine interest in my case and wanted to know exactly what my desired outcome was and how she thought she could–or couldn’t support me in getting there.

She was transparent, brutally honest, and made my ex’s attorneys look like complete clowns. (My ex hired a “Do No Harm” type at first then later switched to a melodramatic “Line Stepper.” He was quite comical, to say the least.)

She was meticulous in cataloging and presenting my evidence, ensuring we never put anything in front of the Judge that was irrelevant to the case or wasn’t substantive.

She drafted responses to motions and petitions that weren’t just a masterclass in the application of family law in my case but also tugged at emotional heartstrings, and at times, was just straight-up savagery, while still being polished without pretense.

She pushed back and reset expectations with me when she needed to. She ensured I always followed the laws I was bound to and made me into a shining example of what a dad just trying to do his best for his kid looks like.

In short: she always did the right thing with the notion that doing so would always put me, the client, in the best possible position at all times.

And that’s exactly where you want to be throughout your entire case.

You’re building a reputation.

Your lawyer is an extension of you.

Hire the one who shares your same beliefs, values, and will always do right by you. And obviously, they must intimately know family law.

It’s a tall order, but plenty of these attorneys exist. You just need to know how to find them, which leads me to the next step.

How to Find the Best Child Custody Attorney by Speed Dating

This is the technique I used to find my “Do Right, Get Right” attorney after wasting 5-figures in attorney fees and years with several other attorneys that couldn’t get results.

I call it the Attorney Speed Dating technique.

Because that’s what you’ll be doing: going on first dates with several attorneys before jumping in headfirst into a full-fledged relationship with the goal that it is more productive and amicable than your marriage. (That’s my poor attempt at humor.)

Let me be clear: finding the right attorney for your case can make a HUGE difference in how it’s handled and the outcome, but it’s no silver bullet. Lawyers can’t change the family law statutes, can’t conjure up or make hard evidence disappear, and can only do a great job handling your case if you’re a great client.

The Attorney Speed Dating technique is a simple, but tiedous process, and I guarantee you will have a much easier time finding your white knight if you follow these steps.

Step 3: Determine What Hill You Are Willing to Die On

What hill do you want to die on?

The idiom “the hill you want to die on” is derived from a military term. Fighting to take the position of a hill from an enemy is nearly impossible and results in mass casualties. One must be sure that the hill is worth the cost of taking it.

Will you not stop until you have exhausted every opportunity at gaining full custody?

Or 50/50 joint custody?

Or being able to spend every birthday with your child?

Or having the ability to travel abroad with them?

What is the most important thing to you that you are willing to fight to the death (not literally, obviously) to gain it?

So, ask yourself, what hill are you willing to die on?

That one thing will be the North Star for your attorney while they construct your case around taking that hill so you can set your stake in it.

Step 4: Draft a 1-Pager Synopsis

The first time you talk to an attorney about your situation will be emotionally difficult. You know that now going in.

It is painful talking about your issues, your failing or failed marriage, or the possibility of not being able to be a full-time dad anymore.

It’s a dark place to be, and understandably so.

Once your emotional state changes and goes to this place, you are immediately not in a space to provide clear, level-headed insight into your case or make legal decisions.

One of the MOST important things I did throughout my case was simple: I was fucking organized.

I always did my aboslute best making my attorney’s job easier so she could spend more time drafting compelling responses or filing petitions instead of rifling through a shoebox worth of “evidence” trying to find a document. (Don’t do that.)

Doing so made my lawyer’s job easier. If they have the facts, they can represent the facts. If they don’t, then they are constantly working from a place of hope, and misdirection.

So, before you march into an attorney’s office for your first consult with them, create a 1 page summary of what has lead you here. Focus on the major milestones, and not the nuanced details.

It’s basically an outline of why you need legal representation, where you are now, and what you want (the hill you want to die on).

This should be a very basic outline, but is enough to get the attorney 50% up to speed on what’s going on before they walk into a consult with you.

Now that you’ve outlined this document, you’ll have a clear idea on what you need and we’ll find 5 solid attorneys to talk to to discuss your case.

Step 5: Research Local Child Custody Attorneys

Just like you would search for a local doctor or dentist, researching an attorney isn’t much different.

Some of the best attorneys can be found through a word-of-mouth referral, but take those with a grain of salt.

Just cause Mr. Fancy Pants Lawyer won a custody case for your buddy that you meet up with to watch MNF doesn’t mean he can do the same for you.

Every case is situational, meaning, what worked to win your friend’s case may not (and probably won’t) work for your case.

Some of the best referrals come from peers: other attorneys, CPAs, or legal professionals. You’d be surprised how small of a world the family legal system is, even in big cities. People know who the “good” and “bad” lawyers ask.

So if you can get a peer referral, that’s great. Definitely talk to them. But if not, that’s ok.

Like with all referrals, there is a priority in which ones you should listen to and follow, with some important caveats.

First, let’s focus on the things to completely ignore. All of these awards and rankings are complete bullshit and can be ignored:

  • Best Lawyer
  • Martindale-Hubbell
  • SuperLawyers
  • Top 40/50 Attorney
  • Honorary Member, American Society of Legal Awards
  • BBB Certifications

These “distinctions” don’t mean anything, and for most of them, lawyers can buy or game their way onto the list.

It’s not a bad thing if an attorney has any of these, just don’t think you’re getting a better attorney just because they have any of these listed on their website.

To start your search, the first thing you’ll do is go to Google and type in “child custody attorney”.

If your Google search looks like it does below, also know that “Google Screened” means nothing. The attorneys listed there are just paying Google to show up there.

It’s ad space, that’s all. You don’t have to ignore these lawyers, but don’t put any stake in the fact that it says “Google Screened.”

Scroll down until you get to the map section. It’ll look like this:

Click the “Rating” button and select 4 stars and up. It’ll open up the full map.

Skip the ads at the top if you have them in your search, then go to the first organic listing. In this example, it’s the Evan Family Law Group.

4.6 stars, 172 reviews, and 10 years in business. Solid.

Now, judging a law firm or child custody attorney by their website is a crapshoot, at best.

The quality of their site is simply a reflection of how much money they’ve spent on marketing, and is not representative of them as an attorney.

But, good firms and attorneys have good reviews and testimonials. I’d be somewhat concerned if an attorney didn’t have any.

Another tool I personally like using for looking up reviews is Avvo.com (non-affiliate link). It’s basically a search engine to find attorneys.

You can also post a question for attorneys to answer. If you have a specific question about your case, post it and see who responds and from there you can decide if you should schedule a consult with them.

Regardless if you use Avvo or Google, you’ll eventually end up looking at the attorney’s website.

On the website, all you are going to do is:

  • Confirm that the firm specializes in divorce, family law, child custody, and/or child support cases (this should be immediately obvious). I want them focused solely on the areas of divorce and family law and not someone who also works in estate, or business law, for example.
  • Skim their reviews or testimonials and try to find one that speaks specifically about their case. You’re looking for ones that are similar to your own situation.
  • Also, see if the testimonials speak to the type of experience that you want. You also might get a glimpse into what type of attorney they are (Do No Harm, Line Stepper, or Do Right, Get Right)

Some lawyers will have a section dedicated to fathers’ rights, or specific issues, and that’s fine, but for the most part, all family law or divorce lawyers offer the same range of services, and all of them will work with child custody issues.

I also recommend using the website to confirm:

  • There are multiple attorneys at the firm. I don’t want my attorney working in a silo. Being able to collaborate with other attorneys in their firm and using them as a sounding board is a big positive.
  • They litigate. Some attorneys specialize in mediation, which is fine, but I want an attorney who is a litigator. This means they’ll know the nuances and preferences between the Judges and have likely appeared in their courtroom before. This part can’t be understated. If your attorney knows “Judge Bob” is a wildcard and hasn’t had success with him in the past, and that’s the Judge that gets assigned to your case, your attorney will know that you should likely file to change Judges. That change could be the difference between a successful outcome or not.
  • Their experience level. I can’t recommend you get the attorney with the most years of experience, because in my own case, the best attorney I had only had her license for a few years. I would seek an attorney that has been practicing in your local county for at least 2 years, simply because they’ll know other attorneys, the Judges, and the nuances of your local family court system. All of that matters.

Once you’ve confirmed what I’ve outlined above, there’s 1 more step to take.

Go back to Google in a new tab and search “[Your State] state bar association.” So for example, since I’m in Texas, I’d search “texas state bar association” which will give me the website texasbar.com.

Every lawyer MUST be part of their state’s Bar Association. If they aren’t, that means they cannot legally practice law in that state.

Use your state’s Bar Association website to search the attorney’s name and make sure there is no history of disciplinary actions taken against them.

It should be a hard pass if the attorney has any previous misconduct.

If they are all clear, and this is an attorney you want to speak with, then go ahead and schedule a consult with them by filling out the form on their website or calling them.

I prefer to call so I don’t have to wait on a response back from their secretary or paralegal.

Pro tip: If you contact them via email or the consult form, and the attorney responds back directly, I’d pass. Same if you call their office and they answer the phone. This might seem like it would be preferable, but I want my attorney working on my case, not doing admin work.

The majority of the time consultations are free, but some charge their hourly rate.

I never found any difference in quality between lawyers who charge for a consult and ones who don’t, so don’t worry about that.

Repeat this step until you have 5 consults booked.

Why 5? Would 2 or 3 be enough?

No. Simply because the more attorneys you talk to, the more obvious the standout one you should hire will be.

Also, by talking to 5 attorneys, you are collecting unique insight from each of them about your  case and will pick up things you can apply, or suggest to the attorney you will eventually hire.

The last time I went Attorney Speed Dating, I got some good tips from everyone, even the attorney I completely hated and would never hire.

Since most consults are free, the only thing you are losing out on is time. And frankly, this is not a stage in your case you can afford to NOT spend time on.

Step 6: Go Speed Dating

Here are the standard questions I would ask every attorney you “date”. Have them ready and jot down notes of their responses.

Regardless of the consultation is free or if you’re paying, act as if you are paying $1,000 per hour with them. Take this part seriously, as this conversation is what will determine who you decide to retain.

Assuming the attorney has already read your 1-Pager (some might pre-consult, some might not), or you review it during the consultation, ask this standard set of 10 questions:

  1. How many cases similar to mine have you handled?
  2. What was the outcome of those cases?
  3. What would be your approach (strategy) to handling my case and achieving my desired outcome?
  4. Based on your past experience and the facts you know about my case, what outcome can I reasonably expect?
  5. Will you be the attorney on my case or someone else at the firm? Or multiple?
  6. What expectations do you have of me during the case?
  7. Do you have any concerns about taking my case?
  8. What is your retainer?
  9. What is your hourly rate? The paralegals? Anyone else who would be working on my case?
  10. I know it’ll vary based on a number of factors, but what can I expect in terms of what this will cost me, all-in?

Obviously, this isn’t a hard and fast set of questions and the conversation should naturally flow. But use this as a guide, and try to get all 10 answered from each attorney.

Of course, ask anything else pertinent to your case. Now’s not the time to be afraid to ask.

Any questions or concerns should be addressed right now, not later.

Also while you are talking with them, notate any suggestions they have about what you should be doing now to help bolster your case like enrolling your kid in sports, documenting your interactions with the ex, etc.

Often the attorneys that want to do right by you will start right away. They won’t save their comments on what could help you, or what you should stop doing that is harming your case.

They’ll show you who they are while their time is free, not just after you start paying them.

Step 7: How to Choose Which Attorney to Represent You

After you’ve completed your 5 speed dates, congratulations!

You’re well on your way to throwing down a big retainer and making the 3rd most important commitment of your life! (#1 was getting married, #2 was having kids)

But seriously, after talking to five attorneys, the decision should NOT be that difficult.

You automatically have to cross out the ones you cannot afford.

I personally wouldn’t hire an attorney that wanted a $10,000 retainer when the rest only needed $2,500.

My personal rule of thumb was to take the attorney’s estimate of what my case will cost, add 20% as a buffer, and that was my budget. If I could afford that, I’d retain them.

As for the hourly rates, obviously, your money will go a lot further with the ones that charge $250 an hour vs. $500.

An attorney’s hourly rate is NOT an indicator of quality or outcome.

It’s simply their rate, which typically increases over many years of experience. But do no conflate experience with quality.

My best lawyer was a junior attorney at a firm and charged $180/hr. She later left and started her own firm and raised her rates to $250/hr, but kept my rate the same and never raised it. Again, she was my Do Right, Get Right attorney. They exist.

That’s not typical, and that’s why we are leaning so heavily on focusing on finding out how’d they approach your case, not just blindly trusting that more money = better attorney.

Then, cross out any attorney that spoke in generalities and couldn’t speak directly to examples of how they have won cases like yours in the past, or specifically how’d they approach yours.

Lastly, cross out any that you simply got a weird feeling from. This might sound strange, but trust yourself on this if you got that feeling.

You will have a very difficult time trusting an attorney that you didn’t vibe with and trust is crucial throughout your case.

You should now be down to 1 or 2 attorneys on your list.

If it’s a close match between the two, simply ask yourself the following question:

Is this who I want to be an extension of me in court, representing my desires and needs as a man, and a father? And those of my children?

Trust your gut on this, and select the one that you feel is your own Do Right, Get Right attorney.

Then ask for an engagement letter with your chosen attorney if you don’t already have one. Ask questions (again…don’t hesitate to ASK QUESTIONS) about anything you don’t understand in the letter.

The attorney should be able to explain anything you aren’t sure of, and if not, that may be your early exit sign that it won’t be a good relationship.

If everything else is good and you sign, then congratulations! You now have found the best possible attorney for your case.

This is a huge first step, and you should feel great knowing you put your best foot forward here.

Final Thoughts

If you’ve signed your engagement letter, it’s now game time.

Here’s the thing though: you just did a LOT of work finding this attorney. Now is not the time to slough off. This was just a first step (even though it was a major one).

The next step is to be proactive and get everything your attorney needs to get started. You have an obligation to yourself and your kids to continue to give this 110%.

Please don’t be the father that puts in 80% and quits when it gets hard. Stay committed, stay strong.

Smoother waters are ahead, so just stay the course.