If you are contemplating a divorce or your spouse is on the verge of serving you with divorce papers, you should immediately contact a divorce lawyer. At the initial consultation, there are several important questions that you should ask. In no particular order, they are as follows:
1. What percentage of your practice is devoted to family law? It is important that you find a specialist. A lot of attorneys do a little of everything, but in this era of specialization, it is impossible to do everything well.
2. How long have you been practicing? It is important that you have an attorney who is experienced.
3. Do you represent more men or more women? Sometimes this is important, sometimes not, but it is important that you have an attorney who represents clients in similar circumstances to yours -- whether you are the husband or the wife. Often it is better to have an attorney who represents both men and women.
4. How well do you know the judges? Wherever an attorney practices, it is important that he or she know the judges, the key personnel and the lay of the land in the court system. This can be critical. You do not want an attorney who is walking into court and does not know anyone.
5. Is there any reason why you are not comfortable representing me? I think it is important that an attorney not be biased and not be judgmental. If you have an unusual situation, make sure that the attorney is comfortable representing you.
6. What is your retainer? It is important to know what an attorney charges and how much the retainer is. Some attorneys will charge very large retainers, and others charge smaller retainers. This depends on the experience and expertise of the attorney, the area where he or she practices, and the complexities of your case.
7. If I reconcile, or if part of the retainer is not used, is the unused portion refundable? This is important because if there is a reconciliation, and little of the attorney's retainer is used, it should be refundable. In other situations, even if the divorce is completed and the retainer is not fully used up, many attorneys take the position that because of their expertise, they should be able to keep the initial retainer.
8. If I should change attorneys, will I received a portion of my retainer back? This is critical because often the first attorney is not the appropriate one for you and sometimes he or she may not the right psychological fit. The unused portion should be refunded.
9. What is your hourly rate? Attorneys charge different hourly rates and usually will charge an hourly rate against the retainer. Do not be put off by an hourly rate because an experienced attorney will charge a higher hourly rate. Remember, an experienced attorney will have the answers to questions in less time than an inexperienced attorney will.
10. How are the hours billed? There are different billing structures for hourly rates. Many attorneys bill in quarter-hour increments. It is important to know this in advance.
11. What are my charges for phone calls, letters or emails? I have found that many attorneys will bill for each phone call, email or letter, with a minimum charge being the quarter-hour or whatever fraction of the hour increment they charge. It is important to know this in advance.
12. Am I charged more for in-court than out-of-court services? This is important because going to court can be very expensive.
13. How many divorce cases have you tried? This is important. The goal is to settle cases out of court, and in most instances, the vast majority of all divorces are settled. You still want an attorney who is experienced and is willing and able to go to trial, if necessary, as a last resort.
14. What is your attitude regarding negotiations and mediation? You want an attorney who is looking for ways to solve problems and not create problems. This may be through face-to-face negotiations or through mediation in an effort to resolve your case.
15. Will you provide me with copies of all papers, documents and pleadings that you receive regarding my case? A good attorney will provide his or her client with copies of everything so that the client's file is identical to the attorney's file.
16. If I call and you are not available, or if I send you an email, how long should I have to wait for a response? What is reasonable? There have been surveys that have shown that clients like a response within two or three hours. Sometimes that is impossible, but a good attorney is going to try to respond to all emails and phone calls within 24 hours or at the end of the day if possible. Communication between you and your attorney is critical. Even if you have a wonderful attorney, if he or she fails to communicate, you are going to be very frustrated and feel overwhelmed by the divorce process. You want a good communicator.
17. How long should my divorce take? The length of time varies from state to state. It will also depend on who the attorneys are, who the judge is, and how complicated the case is. Some divorces can be done in a matter of two or three months, especially if there are no children and few issues involved. In other cases where there are children and a custody battle or there are complications regarding business and property issues, a divorce can run as long as a year or in some situations longer.
18. Will there be assistants or staff working on my case? A good family law attorney usually has a team, often with a paralegal or secretary working on your case and communicating with you. Sometimes an associate or other attorney will work with you as well. It is important to know going in who will be working on your case and how the billings will be for these people as well.
Another issue that you should check on is whether or not your prospective attorney is highly respected and regarded. There are ways to do this. There are sites that rate attorneys such as Avvo, Martindale-Hubbell, Super Lawyers, the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers and others where you will find excellent attorneys.
In selecting an attorney, it is good to ask questions and it is important to do your homework. I also advise a prospective client to write down questions and make sure that all of the questions are answered before the initial interview is over with. If you have other thoughts or questions, please share them with us.
By: HENRY S. GORNBEIN
Family Law Attorney & Legal Correspondent
40900 Woodward Avenue, Ste. 111
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304-5116
248/594-3444; Fax 248/594-3222