Lawyers aren’t one-size-fits-all. They don’t all excel at the same things, so asking a bankruptcy attorney to handle your divorce is a little like asking a plumber to rewire your house. If your marriage is headed for the brink and you feel that you’re going to need the help of an attorney, giving some thought to the interview process before you meet with him for the first time can benefit both of you. You’re entrusting him with your family and finances – things that are really important to you — so you’ll want the right fit.
When you meet with prospective attorneys, you won’t be the only one who has questions.Let the lawyer ask questions first. He won’t know if and how he can help you until he understands the intimate details of your problem — your finances, your family and your marriage. He’ll be able to give you more accurate answers to your own questions when he understands the finer points of what you’re facing.
Find out how his office operates so you’ll know what to expect if you hire him. He’s ethically obligated to act in your best interests, but this doesn’t mean he’ll be able to return every one of your phone calls within five minutes. In fact, you probably won’t want him to. If he has that kind of free time on his hands, he may not be busy with a thriving practice. If you retain him, you’re bound to call at a time when he’s with another client, in court or prepping for trial, so he can’t drop everything to get on the phone with you. Ask how his office handles these situations. Divorce litigation is rife with unexpected emergencies, but what seems like an emergency to you is often something his staff has handled numerous times before.
Get a cost estimate, keeping in mind that it’s just that – an estimate. Divorce lawyers often base their fees on how much time they think they’re going to have to invest into ending your marriage in the best way possible. If you tell a lawyer that your divorce is uncontested when, in fact, there are a few “little” details you and your spouse haven’t ironed out yet, count on your divorce costing more than the lawyer’s original quote. He’s going to have to invest time into negotiating with your spouse or her attorney to reach the resolution you told him you already had. If your spouse stops paying child support midway through the divorce process, this is going to necessitate a trip to court — more time on your lawyer’s part, and you pay for his time. Divorce lawyers typically ask for a retainer fee – a lump sum up front against which they bill their time. Ask what happens if your retainer is depleted before your case is resolved. Will you have to put up another retainer or will you be billed monthly? Ask if there are some things you can do yourself to help ensure that the overall cost of your divorce doesn’t far exceed the initial quote, like collecting paperwork and documents so your attorney doesn’t have to spend his time and his staff’s resources to track them down.
Ask about realistic, likely outcomes. Possibly the most important question you can pose to a divorce attorney is how he thinks your case is going to turn out. You’re not asking him to stare into a crystal ball, and understand that there are no guarantees. You’re asking for an honest assessment of the strengths and weaknesses of your case. He should take a moment to explain what you’re up against and how the law in your state affects your concerns. It may not be what you want to hear — but then again, it might be. In either case, forewarned is forearmed.
Peter Van Aulen is certified by the New Jersey Supreme Court as a matrimonial attorney. His practice is devoted to divorce law. Call today for a free consultation.