A good divorce attorney can provide you an an overview of the law, the process and your basic options at an initial consultation. You should also have the opportunity to explain your particular situation, ask questions, and describe your goals. In my fourteen years as a Raleigh Divorce Attorney, I have learned that people facing separation and divorce need to explain their situation to you first, and you need to listen. It provides background, tells me whats most important to my clients, and help me identify any misconceptions I need to correct at the very beginning. I explain succinctly the law, how it may apply in their situation, and processes of getting where they want to be, and I explain their options. While it is not possible to provide specific legal advice or detailed predictions at an initial consultation, I do provide guidance and general legal advice. After my presentation, I ask the client to ask my questions. My office would have already asked any potential client to write down a list of thier questions prior to the consultation, and I encourage people to ask them. What should you be asking a divorce attorney at an inital consult? Below are five questions that you should ask of any divorce attorney that you are considering.
- How long have you been practicing divorce law?
There is no substitute for experience. Knowing the judges, the local rules, and opposing lawyers is very beneficial. Having actual trial experience is also invaluable for a divorce lawyer, as is experience in drafting and negotiating Separation Agreements, Pleadings, and Court Orders. Learning to actually practice law(as opposed to just knowing the law) is to some extent, trial and error and a process of learning how to be a good lawyer. This is not to say that you should not consider a new attorney. Recent law school graduates often bring an energy, strong knowledge of the law and recent technology, and are generally less expensive than experienced attorneys. Its just riskier. Whatever the case you should know how long your attorney has been practicing divorce law before you hire them.
- How many cases of this type have you taken to trial?
Its one thing to have “handled” divorce cases, and quite another to have actually taken cases to trial. Most cases settle, and better attorneys in my opinion are good at settling cases so court is not necessary. Some attorneys however are hesitant to take any case to trial. While you may be confident your case will settle, it is wise to consider a divorce lawyer who has a good balance of trial experience while remaining an advocate of negotiation. You do not want a divorce attorney who takes every case to court because it demonstrates that they may be unreasonable, may not know the law, or may be too interested in collecting legal fees. However, having taken cases to trial indicates your attorney is knowledgable about the law in theory and practice as you cannot “fake” your way through family law in court.
- What is the best way to achieve my goals?
What your asking for here is a road map. Good divorce lawyers with experience will have a road map or process that they generally follow in divorce case. Some cases require a simple separation agreement and property settlement, however you need to discuss all possibilities. In my divorce practice, depending on the case and the goals of our client, we explain the step by step process of information gathering, negotiation, litigation(if necessary), post filing negotiation, and trial preparation and execution (if necessary). Based upon our early discussions and the situation of our client, we either gear a case towards early settlement (which has certain options) or litigation (high conflict matters) where settlement negotiations will begin only after the initiation of litigation. In some cases it is necessary to file lawsuits first to even the playing field or seek immediate court intervention (emergency orders or restraining orders) to address custody problems or deal with a spouse who is not playing fair with marital money or assets. In any case, your attorney should have a fairly clear and articuluable process they follow to get from point a (where you are now) to point b (where you want to be). Do not expect a “how to” with great detail as that is not possible in an initial consultation,however it is wise to just listen and trust your instincts.
- How much do you anticipate my case will cost?
Do not expect a family law attorney to promise you an exact fee quote. The longer I practice divorce law, the more obvious it becomes to me that flat fees are just not workable or fair to anyone in most divorce cases. Each family law case is so different, and each client has different needs. A client who wants or needs more guidance or legal services is going to pay more than the client who needs less. Charging both of these clients the same amount (which is going to be on the higher side of the “average fee) is just not reasonable. That being said any experienced divorce attorney should be able to forecast a range in which typical cases like yours will cost. Make certain to have them discuss fee ranges throughout the roadmap they just gave you in question 3. Make sure they forecast the cost range to take your case all the way to trial. You need to know and most lawyers will be honest with you. If there is no way on earth you can afford the lower end of their estimate for a contested case, discuss payment options. Some divorce lawyers rarely take cases to trial for the simple fact that they charge so much to negotiate nobody can afford them at trial. Remember that how much a lawyer charges is not the best gauge of how “good” the lawyers is. Pricing for divorce lawyers is often dictated by their firm, and firms that advertise heavily are typically going to charge more regardless of skill level. Many of those attorneys routinely from the case before its finished and the client is left representing themselves or scrambling for a “cheap” lawyer unexpectedly. If all you can afford is negotiation, know that going in, and make a plan with your lawyer to actually settle the case and not over negotiate yourself into a trial that will find you standing at the table in Court by yourself.
- What should I be doing now to protect myself now?
Before you leave that office, make sure you have discussed what you should be doing until the next action step in your case. Should you be paying child support or alimony (PSS)? How should you deal with joint credit accounts or financial accounts? Immediate common sense actions can save you immeasurable amounts of trouble and substantial amount of money in many situations. For example, failure to pay appropriate child support (at guideline levels) or temporary alimony (PSS) increases the chances of you being ordered to pay your spouses attorney fees which can be a small fortune. A divorce lawyer will not be able to give you exact figures to pay at an initial consultation due to the lack of information about your case, they should be able to make you aware of the risk and potential obligation, and offer you some guidance. In some cases, restraining orders can be obtained to stop a spouse from spending or hiding money and assets as well. A good divorce lawyer can help you minimize your risks and protect your financial future. Discuss it.