Starting the search for a brand new divorce attorney can be stressful and overwhelming. Just a quick glance through the phone book reveals countless options, but how will you know which attorney is the right one for your divorce? You should know what you are looking for from the very first phone call and know what to expect from your initial consultation meeting. Head into that first meeting educated about what services they can provide and what you believe will work best for your divorce.
A relationship with your attorney is the same as any other business relationship you maintain. Can you work with this person? Do you actually want to work with this person? Making key decisions such as this one at the very beginning of the process is far better than making them six months into your divorce proceedings.
When you are beginning a relationship with a new divorce attorney, here are a few tips for determining if they are the right fit for you:
1) Are they experienced and persuasive?
When you first meet an attorney, take note of whether or not you feel they have a particularly powerful presence. Are they persuasive enough to represent your interests and persuade the opposing counsel? This character trait cannot be underestimated when you are initiating a business relationship with an attorney. After all, your settlement is uncertain if they cannot convince opposing counsel or a judge of all that you deserve.
Another key characteristic of having a successful divorce attorney and client relationship is their experience level with family law. Ask questions regarding how many years they have been practicing family law, what other trades they serve, and how many divorces they process each year. You are keeping an eye out for an attorney that is highly specialized in family law and divorces, not a “jack of all trades” who dabbles in family law, construction law, and seven other specialties.
The amount of experience they have can be a good predictor of whether or not they have enough knowledge of the laws surrounding divorce to handle your case quickly, efficiently, and ensure that you receive all you are entitled. When they are highly specialized, they should have a greater amount of education regarding the laws and more experience in putting it into practice – both of which are great attributes for you as the client.
You also need to consider their experience and relationship with your spouse’s attorney, if you are privy to who that may be. A hostile relationship between your attorney and the opposing counsel could take the focus off your proceedings and shift it toward their relationship and motives with the other attorney.
2) How will you interact with them?
Customer service is a critical consideration, beginning with the very first phone call. Is the receptionist polite and informative? Does the attorney return your phone call in a timely manner? Answering either of those questions in the negative could be an indicator that you will not be pleased with the customer service they will provide throughout your proceedings.
Ask what the policy is regarding your communication with them. You should know what days they spend in the office, and what timeframe you can expect them to return your phone calls and emails within. If they spend several days each week out of the office, inquire whether someone else in the office will be well-versed with the specifics of your case in case you have pressing questions when the attorney is not available.
Furthermore, how will they charge for the work and communication that is involved in your case? You should have a detailed account of how the billing rates work, including if they differ among categories such as legal advice, filing paperwork, and making copies. Knowing how they count the minutes that you are in communication with them is an important consideration as well. Does your attorney charge per hour, in fifteen minute increments, or do they tally up each individual minute? The billing schedule can make a substantial impact on what the final bill for your divorce will be.
3) What service options do they provide?
Entering into an attorney-client relationship, you should already have a fair idea of what you believe you will need for your proceedings. The first question might be whether the attorney or their firm has relationships with other qualified professionals who can assist in trickier situations. Do they have a Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, forensic account, mediator, or other attorneys they can consult with in the event of needing outside advice and opinions from specific experts? When your attorney manages close relationships with other trades and services, it is far more convenient for you to reach out for additional assistance if necessary.
You should also inquire whether they offer “unbundled” legal services or mediation. This allows you to cut some of the costs associated with divorce proceedings by only paying for the specific services that you are in need of. Whether you desire just legal advice, someone to help draft and file documents, or whether you need someone to manage all of the proceedings from start to finish, knowing what your options are can be helpful.
This even allows you to determine if you want to make the switch to a more do-it-yourself approach if you see your bill rising faster than you anticipate. This is a good time to begin asking questions about what you can do yourself to speed the process along and save on the costs. Are they open to a more do-it-yourself arrangement with you when it comes to documentation or filing paperwork? Asking upfront can save you money in the end if you decide that you are capable of handling some of these issues on your own.
Come to the meeting prepared.
While not a requirement, it does not hurt to come to the meeting prepared with the important documents that you will need to discuss. These could include a selection of recent tax documents, paystubs, bank statements, proof of adultery or abuse, and more. It may even be helpful to have your marriage license and important documents relating to you children (health papers, psychological papers, addresses, etc.).
By bringing all of the additional documentation that you believe is pertinent to your case, you are granting the attorney a clear look at what marital assets and liabilities will need to be divided. What do you have in retirement accounts, real estate, savings, and investments? Looking at the bigger picture may allow them to make clearer determinations of what the next steps and plans might look like.
Before you leave your initial consultation, you should receive some proposed game plan or plan of action from the attorney regarding what they believe the best steps to take are. You will need to evaluate whether you agree with their evaluation, especially if they believe it could end up going to trial. If you believe that your divorce could be settled more amicably (and for less cost), then you might want to reconsider your relationship with this attorney.
Because this is a significant business relationship that you will be a part of for the coming months, you should consider meeting with multiple attorneys if you are not satisfied with the initial consultation. There is nothing wrong with moving back to the drawing board before you commit to an attorney for the long haul. You never know how long your divorce proceedings could last, so be certain that you are satisfied with your attorney’s experience, qualifications, customer service, and cost.
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Shawn Leamon, MBA and Certified Divorce Financial Analyst, is the host of the Divorce and Your Money Show, the #1 show on iTunes that discusses personal finance issues in divorce. He is also author of Divorce and Your Money: The No-Nonsense Guide, available on Amazon. Learn more at www.divorceandyourmoney.com.
Disclaimer: Divorce and Your Money and its affiliates do not provide tax, legal, or accounting advice. In considering this material, you should discuss your individual circumstances with professionals in those areas before making any decisions.