Finding an experienced family attorney with whom you “click” dramatically improves
your prospects for achieving your divorce goals.
With the possible exception of your current spouse, let’s assume you are a good judge of
people. Let’s further assume that you’ve read a blog or 2 on how to choose a divorce lawyer.
Finally, let’s assume you’ve listened to your friends bitch endlessly about their lawyers.
All of that should enable you to choose a lawyer for yourself, right?
You need to ask two kinds of questions at an initial interview with a divorce lawyer:
The first type of question relates to the law and how it applies to your case. These are the
questions that have been rattling around your brain loudly enough to wake you up at 3:00 AM
every night. Like “will my kids be all right?” And “will I be able to keep my house?” And
“can I keep my entire pension?”
At the interview stage, no lawyer can say precisely how your case will be resolved. But
an experienced family lawyer should be able to give you a range of likely outcomes on key
issues. Those issues typically include:
- Whether your case calls for spousal support and if so, the range of likely amounts and the length of time they will be paid
- What property is considered “marital property” that will be divided, and the
approximate percentage of marital property each spouse is likely to receive
- How child-related issues such as custody and allocation of time with the children are likely to be resolved in light of the children’s ages, the parents’ availability to be with the children and the historical allocation of responsibilities between the parents
- The lawyer’s best projection of likely outcomes regarding “case specific” questions such as
- Whether your home might need to be sold and if so, when
- If your spouse is self-employed, how much can reasonably be done to determine
his/her actual income for support purposes
- To the extent possible, how long the case should take and a ballpark of likely legal fees both (1) if the case settles, and (2) if there is a trial
You can increase the value of the lawyer’s advice by bringing some key documents to the
- Your last 3 income tax returns
- 3 years of corporate returns for any incorporated business (other than “S
corporations”) owned by you or your spouse
- A “net worth statement;” a fancy name for a list of what you own (assets) and what
you owe (liabilities)
Also, work on an estimate of your living expenses prior to the consultation, particularly
costs associated with your current home. If you’re feeling particularly ambitious, take a shot at
filling out the expense section of the “financial disclosure statement” or “financial affidavit”
that you’ll find on your state court system’s website.
During the consultation itself, pay close attention not only to what the lawyer says, but
how she says it. Does she respond fully to your questions? Are the answers stated with
confidence? Is she easy to understand? These kinds of questions relate to a lawyer’s emotional
intelligence, a critical factor that is too often overlooked by clients who are understandably
focused on legalities.
Lawyers generally bring their touchy-feely A-game to an initial interview. If the lawyer
appears distracted or impatient at this early stage, that’s more likely to get worse than better as
your case progresses.
You’re not looking for a new BFF at an initial consultation but you do need to feel
comfortable enough with your lawyer to be able to work with her and ask her questions during
your case. We all know people who just aren’t on our wavelength. Make sure your lawyer isn’t
one of them.
The second category of questions to ask at an initial interview relates to the lawyer and the
attorney/client relationship. Those questions can be divided into 4 categories:
- The lawyer’s experience in family law
- Whether and how support staff and other lawyers may be involved in your case
- The lawyer’s billing practices
- Specifics of how the attorney/client relationship would work
In Part 2 of this article, I’ll discuss these inquiries in detail.
Larry Sarezky, Esq.