Choosing to pursue civil litigation is an important and personal decision, as is choosing a law
firm and an attorney to represent you. If, when, and how to pursue civil litigation related to past
sexual abuse that you suffered requires an attorney with specific knowledge and experience.
You deserve to be represented by someone who understands what you’ve been through and
knows how to successfully navigate the civil legal process.
Why is your choice important?
Unlike prosecutors in criminal cases who represent the jurisdiction (not the survivor), an
attorney in a civil case represents your interests and they are not automatically assigned to
your case. This means that you need to find and retain your own attorney.
It is up to you who you hire. Like all circumstances in which you would hire someone to fulfill a
service, you want to hire an attorney who is not only good at what they do, but is also skilled at
handling your specific kind of case. For example, there are a lot of photographers you could
hire, but if you were looking for a photographer to take photos of your wedding, you would
want to hire someone who specializes in wedding photography and has the portfolio and
personality you want. The same is true for a civil attorney. You are entitled to know who they
are, what experience they have, and how they work.
The strength of the civil justice system is that the survivor is in the position of power—the
position to sue, the position to hire their own attorney, the position to go to trial, and the
position to settle with terms that are acceptable to the survivor. Even within this position of
power, however, the process can seem overwhelming. It’s okay to feel that way. This tip sheet
answers some of the most common questions and concerns survivors have when it comes to
starting the civil legal process.
What are some things I should look for when selecting an attorney or firm?
- Their experience: How many sexual abuse cases has the attorney or firm handled? What is
their track record in the state where your case will be filed and/or against the same kinds of
defendants (dioceses, schools, religious orders)? Do they have experience handling child
sexual abuse cases where the defendant has filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy?
- Their expertise: What do the firm and their attorneys know about the dynamics and trauma of
sexual abuse, how perpetrators operate, and how the abuse impacts survivors long-term? Do
they specialize in sexual abuse cases? Are they trauma-informed?
- Their location: Is the firm near enough to you that you don’t have to travel far and/or do they
offer virtual consultations? Have they represented other survivors in your state?
- Their transparency: Does the firm clearly explain upfront how their process, including their fee
structure, works? Are they honest and straightforward with you about whether or not they can
take your case?
- Their client communication: Are they respectful, kind, and patient? Do they care about your
needs and do they take the time to answer all your questions? Do they return phone calls and
emails in a timely manner? Do they have processes in place to make sure that clients’ legal
and case-related needs are handled quickly and effectively?
How do I go about selecting a law firm or attorney?
The first step is to research law firms that handle sexual abuse cases in your state. Look carefully
at their websites for evidence that they have the necessary experience and knowledge about
sexual abuse. These things should be obvious on their website. For example, is sexual abuse
mentioned prominently on their homepage as something they specialize in, or do you have to look
for it? Does the site have bios about the attorney(s) in order to learn more about them and their
experience? Is the language on the website survivor-centered and trauma-informed?
Talk to other survivors who have filed sexual abuse cases. Word-of-mouth from other survivors
can be a powerful tool for learning about and selecting an attorney. If a recommendation comes
from someone other than a survivor, be sure to research that attorney carefully. For example, your
cousin may have had a great experience with the attorney who represented them following a car
accident, but if that attorney is not experienced with sexual abuse cases, then they are probably
not the right attorney for you.
Talk to legal organizations, such as the National Crime Victims Bar Association, who can refer
qualified and experienced child sexual abuse attorneys to survivors nationwide.
After you’ve researched some potential firms or attorneys, schedule a time to interview at least
three of them. This will be your chance to get a better understanding of who they are, what their
experience is, how they work, and how well you feel they could work with you. Pay attention not
only to the specific attorney(s) with whom you meet, but also the receptionist and other staff
members in the office. Are they professional, respectful, and kind? Do they keep you waiting long?
Do they answer your questions fully?
Some things to keep in mind about an initial meeting or interview with an attorney:
- A reputable attorney will never charge to meet with you and discuss your case.
- This meeting does not in any way obligate you to retain (hire) the attorney.
- Trust your instincts: If something doesn’t feel right to you about the attorney or the firm, don’t
ignore that feeling. The best attorney for the job is the attorney that is right for you.
- Personality counts: You will be sharing very intimate details about some of the most painful
parts of your life, so you want someone with whom you feel comfortable. Think of your
attorney in the same way you think of your doctor or therapist.
- Bring a trusted support person with you to the interview: it can be helpful to have a support
person with you as another set of eyes and ears. Remember, however, that the attorney you
choose will be representing you – not your support person – so how you feel about the
attorney matters most.
What if the attorney I like doesn’t want to take my case?
If an attorney decides not to take your case, it does not mean that they don’t like you or that they
don’t believe that you were abused. Attorneys will typically only take cases they believe they can
win. Unfortunately, sometimes the specific circumstances of sexual abuse cases or current law
make them very difficult to successfully litigate. This doesn’t mean you did anything wrong.