You arrive at the office of the divorce lawyer feeling a little nervous. You have the records and documents you were asked to bring with you. What happens now? First you are made welcome by the receptionist and likely asked to fill out a sheet with basics such as your contact information and information about your spouse and children, date of marriage and separation. Next, the lawyer will come out to meet you and take you back to his or her office or a conference room. Often the lawyer will have a paralegal or associate lawyer sit in on the consultation to take notes and participate in the meeting. The consultation does not cost more if there is a second lawyer or paralegal present. Expect to spend one to two hours consulting with the lawyer.
Generally, most lawyers will want to first hear the facts and circumstances about the marriage. It is important to give a complete and detailed description of the facts and circumstances in the marriage that led to you consulting a divorce lawyer. These facts form the foundation for the legal advice regarding alimony, custody, distribution of property and other issues the lawyer will give you during your consultation. Do not leave anything out. If you leave out facts, especially the embarrassing or unpleasant facts, the lawyer’s legal advice may not be valid. You can be sure there is very little a divorce lawyer has not seen or heard before. Remember, everything you say to the lawyer and any associate lawyer or paralegal is completely privileged and confidential. Do try to stay on point.
The lawyer will also ask about your financial circumstances. This will include information about you and your spouse’s assets, income and standard of living. Hopefully, you will bring several years of tax returns (both business and personal) and financial statements to the consultation for the lawyer to review. The financial information allows the lawyer to provide advice on what you can expect with regard to payment or receipt of child support and/or alimony and distribution of property. No lawyer cannot predict exactly what amounts of money you may pay or receive and more likely will give an estimate of the range of payments and duration based on his or her experience.
No lawyer can or should guarantee a specific result and you should not expect a guarantee. Be very leery of a lawyer who promises or guarantees anything other than to make his or her best effort to obtain a successful result. Also do not hire a lawyer who appears to mirror your own anger at your spouse.
During the consultation you should ask all the questions you have and wrote down before the meeting. Write down the answers or make notes so you don’t forget what the lawyer says in response. You should also decide how you feel about the lawyer while talking to him or her. Are you comfortable and do you feel relaxed? Do you feel like the lawyer is trustworthy and the advice you are getting is believable? Or does the lawyer seem intimidating, cold and distant?Do you feel like you might be “bothering” the lawyer if you call too often? Does the lawyer denigrate or “put down” the opposing lawyer, question their fees or more (very unprofessional and a poor attempt to make himself or herself look better). You need to hire a lawyer to whom you can talk and with whom you can work. Divorce is a team effort between you and your lawyer and his or her staff. While the lawyer’s credentials and experience are very important, so are his or her interpersonal skills. This is a close working relationship. You need to feel good about the lawyer you hire.
Ask the lawyer what he or she proposes as a strategy in your case. If your case is not yet in the courts the emphasis is on obtaining the financial and other information needed to resolve the case in mediation or arbitration and not go to court. Resolving your case in court is the last option as it is the most expensive alternative and emotionally difficult. If your case is already in litigation and court hearings are unavoidable, the emphasis is on a strategy that seeks pre-trial settlement while preparing for court at the same time in case negotiations are unsuccessful.
Before you leave the consultation, talk to the lawyer about the financial arrangements for attorney fees and expenses and how they are paid. Most attorneys will ask for a fee advance or retainer. The retainer is placed in a trust account and drawn out as the work is completed. The amount will depend on a number of factors including whether the case is already in litigation, whether there have been prior lawyers in the case as well as the size and nature of the case. Anticipate that a case with several million dollars in assets or a contentious custody fight will cost substantially more than a simple divorce case, If asked, most lawyers can, once they have sufficient information about a case, give you an estimate of fees and costs. However, hostility of the opposing party, court delays and the difficulty in dealing with the opposing lawyer can all cause attorney fees to increase through no fault of your lawyer.
Get your agreement with the attorney in writing. Most lawyers have an engagement letter or contract which spells out all the terms, financial and otherwise, with which you must agree in order for the lawyer to represent you. Read the entire agreement and make sure you understand it. If you have questions about the engagement agreement make sure you get your questions answered before signing.