Adoption Lawyers - How to Select the Best One for You
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Because adoption lawyers play a key role in most independent adoptions, the selection of your lawyer is usually the most critical decision in your adoption plan. In many cases, the lawyer will not only assist you in finding a birth mother and creating your adoptive match, but also doing all the legal work required. Some states do not allow any entities but licensed agencies to help match birth mothers with adoptive parents (not even attorneys), but even in those restrictive states, the attorney can give you advice on how best to network for a birth mother, and then help you screen potential candidates, making their role equally critical.
There are several key areas in which you will want to evaluate your potential adoption lawyer:
- Legal experience and percentage of practice dedicated to adoption.
- Does he or she provide assistance in matching with a birth mother?
- Membership in the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys.
- High ethics and absence of disciplinary actions.
- Does his or her personality and personal approach to adoption match yours?
- Reasonable fees, and the absence of exorbitant up-front fees.
Legal experience and percentage of practice dedicated to adoption
Many adoptive parents assume that most attorneys doing adoptions are family law attorneys (doing divorces and child custody cases, and just the occasional adoption.) There are indeed many such generic attorneys, and it is possible one could do an appropriate job. But since adoptions are potentially so complex, it is wise to use an adoption specialist. This usually means a lawyer who dedicates a significant percentage of their practice to adoption, or in rare cases even limits their practice to adoption. Consider asking the lawyer:
- How many years have you been licensed as an attorney?
- How many adoptions have you completed? (Many adoption professionals would consider doing at least 50 as a minimum to properly claim any true expertise, and many adoption specialists have done hundreds in their career.)
- What percentage of your practice is dedicated to adoption?
- How many interstate adoptions have you done? (This is important iif your adoption is, or may be, interstate.)
- How many ICWA (Indian Child Welfare Act adoptions) have you done? (This is important if your adoption is, or may, involve a birth parent with some Indian heritage.) (These are becoming more and more common, at least to the degree that a tribal inquiry must be made, even if the ICWA is found not to apply.)
- Have you ever been disciplined by the state bar? (More on this below.)
- Do you help us find a birth mother? (More on this below.)
- What percentage of the placements you are involved in fail due to a birth parent changing their mind, or other reason? (Anything over a ten percent failure rate should be a cause for concern.)
- Who obtains the consent of the birth father, or terminates his rights if he can't be found or other complications arise?
When you meet with an attorney, ask questions to judge their knowledge. Consider it a test, although you are doing it conversationally so it won't feel like "a test" to them. Ask them to explain the basics of the Indian Child Welfare Act. What is the ICPC (Interstate Compact for the Placement of Children - special laws governing interstate adoptions) and how does it work? How much is the federal adoption tax credit and what are the income limits? When is the birth mother's consent taken and how much time does she have to revoke it? These questions are critical in evaluating an attorney, particularly if you are not retaining an AAAA lawyer, and are instead speaking to a general family law lawyer. By the time you've read all the adoption101.com seminars, you will have a great deal of knowledge on these subjects. If the attorney does not know the answers off the top of his or her head, that tells you their true expertise. Rather, the lack of it. You don't want to hire someone who knows less than you.
Get answers to all the above bulleted questions directly from the attorney (or their website or promotional literature). Many will provide the information in some form so you can learn most of this before even meeting. But it is also wise to check the information from other sources. Although the answers to every individual question above may not be discoverable, getting a general impression of a lawyer is possible, as well as if they are seen to actually play a recognizable role in adoptions in their community, as they may be leading you to believe.
Here are some specfic steps you can employ to independently verify a lawyer's status as a true "adoption lawyer:"
- Call the county court in which the attorney has his or her practice and ask for the clerk's office who handles the filing of adoption petitions and related actions. Each state court uses different departments to process their adoptions, but usually this will be either an "adoption clerk," "family law clerk" or "probate clerk." Although the content of adoption filings are confidential, and court personnel are not permitted to give recommendations or personal opinions, just giving out generic information is sometimes permitted. You can tell the clerk you are seeking to hire an adoption attorney and simply want to know if the clerk's office has processed many adoption filings from attorney so-and-so (then name the few lawyers you have narrowed down your search to). If the clerk has been working the adoption desk for a long time, and has never, or rarely, seen the attorney's name on adoption filings, that tells you something significant.
- Join the respected national infertility group Resolve. Attend their seminars. It is a good place to meet others who have adopted, or have looked into it. Ask about attorneys they've used, or learned about.
- Call licensed adoption agencies in the attorney's vicinity. Although independent and agency adoptions are sometimes handled as distinctly different legal matters procedure wise - this varies by state, the adoption world is a small one, and they will usually know the attorneys doing a lot of adoptions in their area, or even those with whom they've worked directly. Just make sure you are speaking to someone experienced at the agency who would know such things, not a newly hired receptionist.
- Although the above suggestions are recommended steps, a simple way to go far in judging a lawyer's status as a truly experienced "adoption lawyer" is to see if they are a member of the distinguished American Academy of Adoption Attorneys. It is discussed below.
Does he or she provide assistance in matching with a birth mother?
Perhaps one of the most popular reason why adoptive parents retain an adoption lawyer is that a good adoption lawyer can often personally introduce you to a birth mother. (Providing critical legal advice is still the key, but matching you to a birth mother is a nice bonus.) Established adoption attorneys usually have working relationships with others in pregnancy-related fields, such as family planning centers, physicians, hospitals, counselors, the clergy etc. When these individuals learn a woman is considering placing a child for adoption, they will often refer her directly to the adoption attorney they have come to trust. There are a small number of states which do not permit attorneys, or any parties but licensed agencies, to locate and introduce birth mothers to adoptive parents. Generally, attorneys in those states advise adoptive parents how to locate a birth mother (the science of "networking," see our Secrets of Success article), then perform the necessary legal work thereafter, or in some cases can recommend an adoption attorney in another state (who can assist with matching) and work in tandem with that attorney.
Membership in the Key Organizations
The American Academy of Adoption Attorneys (AAAA) is an excellent association of adoption lawyers. It has approximately 300 members nationwide and has strict requirements for membership (e.g. number of adoptions completed, number of interstate adoptions completed, regular attendance at national educational conferences, etc.). It is considered a leading resource for adoption attorneys. To see a full list of members, state by state, visit the AAAA website. Attorneys in some states have formed their own adoption academies, such as California (with even stricter requirements than AAAA), and Georgia.
High ethics and absence of disciplinary adoptions
The best way to learn a lawyer's ethics is to talk to the lawyer directly. A face to face conversation can go a long ways. If the attorney brags of "shortcuts" in the process, and has practices that strike you as improper, you know not to consider that attorney. Likewise, those attorneys who have no compassion for the birth mothers as human beings going through a difficult time of their lives (rather just a means by which to find a baby), should also be avoided.
To find out if there have been any disciplinary actions against a lawyer, visit their state bar's website. You can usually easily find this on any internet search engine, typing for example: "Michigan State Bar." Most state bar associations make disciplinary actions available online to the general public via their website.
Does the attorney's personality and approach to adoption match yours?
You will be working closely with your attorney through an emotional process. You want to make sure his or her personality is right for you. Are they calm? Do they explain things clearly? Will they handle stress well? Some attorneys have very mild personalities and some are very aggressive. Which is right for you? Which will be right for your birth mother? Can you imagine this lawyer handling your potential birth mother with sensitivity, so she feels good about the process? Can you imagine this lawyer handling a panicked call from you late at night if an emergency develops in your adoption?
Reasonable fees, and absence of exhorbitant up-front fees
Attorneys are highly skilled and trained professionals, offering a valuable service few are able to provide, and charge accordingly. However, their fees should still be reasonable. Many charge by the hour (usually with an advance retainer), and others charge a flat fee for set services. (Either arrangement can be good, just learn the pros and cons of each as stated in the attorney's retainer.) By calling several attorneys with similar experience in adoptions, you can get a feel for what is customary. Be cautious for those who charge significantly over the norm. Also, be cautious of an attorney who charges an unusually large "up-front" fee. Make sure your retainer clearly spells out what services you are paying for, that it states you will receive advance notice before more fees are incurred, and what refunds are returnable to you if certain services are not provided, and how any potential dispute between you would be resolved (e.g. arbitration).
Additional Sources of Information
There are two particularly helpful books on the subject of selecting an adoption attorney. One is THE ADOPTION RESOURCE BOOK, by Lois Gilman. She provides an excellent list of suggested questions (some discussed above) to pose to any attorney you are considering. Here is a partial summary:
- What matchmaking role - if any - does the attorney play?
- Who will interview the birth parents on your behalf? If the attorney is not available to talk to birth parents, who in the office does?
- Who provides counseling of the birth parents? When?
- Will the attorney take charge of the medical arrangements?
- Will the attorney represent you in court?
- Who will represent the birth parents in court? (Many courts do not permit one lawyer to represent both you and the birth parents, since there may be a conflict of interest.)
- Who will handle the rights of the birth father?
- How many adoptions has the attorney handled? How recently? How many interstate adoptions?
- What are the attorney's fees and what do they cover?
- How will funds be disbursed to the birth parents? Will an attorney trust account be used?
- Is there a written retainer with the attorney?
- What does the attorney know about open adoption? What are his or her views on it?
- How accessible is the attorney? Who returns your calls and how soon?
- Do you personally feel comfortable with the attorney as a person who will share an intimate experience of your life?
The other tremendously helpful book is ADOPTING IN AMERICA: How To Adopt Within One Year by adoption attorney Randall Hicks. It provides a biography and list of qualifications of adoption attorneys in each state (the year they began practicing law, number of adoptions completed annually, number of adoptions completed in their career, et cetera, and dedicates an entire chapter providing detailed advice on how to find and select an adoption attorney).
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There are more than 300 members of the American Academy of Adoption Attorneys located throughout the United States. With an investment of time and research, you can find the right one for you.
Go to state-by-state directories of adoption attorneys and agencies
Go to Adoption101.com home page to see all our great articles