Updated: 2020-07-16 by
There are many legal matters you can handle on your own, but a child custody fight is probably not one of them. First, the stakes are high for all involved—especially for the children. Second, Illinois child custody laws and procedures are complex and it’s tough to handle complexity under stress. Mistakes may lead to confusing, expensive, and unhappy outcomes.
We don’t say these things to scare you. Our intention is to underscore reality and to encourage you to ask for help. Even if you can’t afford to hire a lawyer outright, you may be able to find free or low-cost legal assistance. At the very least, you can take advantage of the increasing number of custody self-help resources offered by local courts.
Tips for Finding a Good Child Custody Lawyer
If you’re going to hire a family law attorney, take steps to find the best one you can. Here’s how to start your search:
- Other lawyers. If you know any lawyers you like, ask if they know a good family lawyer (or whether they’re willing to ask around on your behalf).
- Counselors or therapists. If you’re seeing a marriage counselor, ask her or him for lawyer recommendations.
- Family, friends, and acquaintances. Check with people you know who may have hired a family lawyer in the past. A single recommendation may not mean much, but it could provide a starting point. If you hear the same name multiple times, put that name on your list of lawyers to call.
- Professional associations. If your personal contacts don’t pan out, turn to professional associations for family lawyers. For example, many skilled family law attorneys belong to the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers (AAML). You can also contact the Illinois State Bar Association for family lawyer referrals.
After you’ve got a list of names, check with the Illinois State Bar Association to be sure the lawyer is properly licensed and insured and not facing disciplinary proceedings. You’ll probably want to do a general internet search for the lawyer's name, too, just to see what you find. When you feel ready to make phone calls, see the list of questions to ask a family lawyer, below.
How to Get a Free or Low-Cost Child Custody Lawyer
If you can’t afford to hire a lawyer, that doesn’t necessarily mean you have to go it alone. Many lawyers volunteer their time to help families who need legal representation. And local law schools may run clinics where you can get help. Here are a few strategies for finding affordable assistance:
- Visit Illinois Legal Aid to find nearby legal aid offices and self-help resources.
- Check out the website of the Perry County family court. These days, many courts are doing a decent job of providing supportive resources for folks who can’t afford lawyers. Unfortunately, this is not true everywhere. If your court’s website isn’t friendly, don’t give up. Call the court clerk, or visit in person, and say that you want help but can’t afford to hire a lawyer. Court clerks are human and a polite request might go a long way toward helping you learn your best local options.
- Use a list of U.S. Law Schools like this one to find out whether there are law schools near you. If you find one (or more) contact the school to see if they operate a legal clinic or have other suggestions for you.
Questions to Ask a Child Custody Lawyer
Whether you’re hiring a lawyer or working with a volunteer, you should feel comfortable with your attorney and confident about their skills. Before you agree to work with a lawyer, set up an in-person interview. Don’t be embarrassed to bring along a list or to be upfront with questions for a legal aid lawyer. Even if you can’t pay, you need to know as much as you can about who you’ll be working with.
You may already have a good idea of what you want to know, but here are some common questions to consider asking:
- How long have you practiced family law?
- Do you practice only family law or do you do other kinds of cases, too?
- Have you handled a custody case like mine before?
- What are the most likely outcomes of my custody case? What do you think the result will be?
- Do you recommend mediation?
- If my case goes to court, do you think my children should testify?
- How will you let me know what’s going on with my case? Will you ask for my input on important decisions or strategies?
- How quickly will you usually respond to my phone calls or emails?
- Will anyone other than you be working on my case?
- Are you familiar with the judges and courts in the county where I will file my custody case?
- Do you know my spouse’s lawyer? Do you get along with him or her?
- Do you have good relationships with other local family law attorneys?
And of course, if you’ll be paying the lawyer, ask:
- What do you charge? Can you estimate how much I’m going to pay in attorneys’ fees and case expenses?
Above all, when it comes to choosing a lawyer, trust your gut. If you don’t have a good feeling, keep looking until you find a lawyer you like.
You may also be interested in:
Know the basics of how to get custody of a child in Illinois, from the best interests of the child to child custody mediation and going to family court.
Understand the common factors Illinois’s judges use when making child custody decisions.
Know how joint physical custody and joint legal custody work in Illinois so you can create the best parenting plan for your family.