Part of the problem with hiring an attorney is that you don’t have to pick one when you’re going through a good phase in your life. And that’s pretty much true of all attorneys. You hire an attorney if you’ve been charged with a crime. You hire an attorney if you need to file for bankruptcy. You see an attorney to help you draft a will or trust. You hire an attorney if you get injured in a car accident.
You also hire an attorney if you’re going through a divorce or custody case. Or, at least, you consider hiring one.
And the thing that all those situations have in common? They’re bad. You’re stressed. You’re worried. And that’s a hard time to make a big decision about who will represent you in a case that will, in all likelihood, have a big impact on your life. How can you make a decision that big when you’re that upset? When you’re worried about the decisions you’re making and how they’ll impact, not only you, but the rest of your family as well? When you’re worried about everything—from how the retirement accounts will be divided to whether you’ll receive spousal support and what a custody and visitation arrangement will look like—how do you have the time and energy to worry about hiring an attorney on top of it all? But you have to—or, at least, you have to give it some thought.
The decisions you make about your divorce and custody case are important, and can have lasting repercussions. But that doesn’t mean that you have to know exactly what to do off hand. Hiring an attorney isn’t something you do every day so, when you sit down to sift through all the information available to you on the internet, don’t despair.
Today, we’re going to talk about 6 key questions to ask your attorney in your first consultation. That way, you’ll be prepared to ask the questions you didn’t know you needed to ask. That’s the way it always is, isn’t it? The first time you bought a house, you probably felt like there were a few questions that, in retrospect, you wish you had asked. And that was a happy time! When you’re stressed, your ability to remember and recall all the questions you’d like answers to is impaired. You’ve never been here before, and you’re smart to ask the question: what do I need to know that I don’t know I don’t know?
1. How long have you been practicing law?
Different attorneys have different levels of experience. Don’t think for a second that I mean to imply that a less experienced attorney wouldn’t handle your case just as well as an older attorney. It’s just that it’s something you should ask.
Older attorneys, obviously, have a lot more experience, and have handled a wider variety of cases. They have been through a number of changes in the law, and have seen how the judges in their locality have applied the law over time. They know the judges, and know the local rules of procedure. They work efficiently.
Younger attorneys, on the other hand, tend to be innovative, technologically savvy, and eager to please. They spend more time reviewing and preparing cases before trial. They also bill at much lower hourly rates, making them a bargain—especially if that’s a big concern for you. Especially when they work in firms with more experienced attorneys, younger attorneys also have the opportunity to ask questions and get advice from their more experienced counterparts.
At the end of the day, you should feel like your attorney, whether newer or more experienced, is confident, comfortable with your case, and willing to give you the attention you deserve. You should feel good about making the decision to hire your attorney, regardless of his or her level of experience. Still, in the spirit of full disclosure, it’s a question you should ask.
2. Is your practice focused exclusively on family law?
Just like anything else, you don’t want an attorney who is a jack of all trades and master of none. You want someone who specifically handles family law. There’s a lot of nuance in any area of law, and things are pretty constantly changing. An attorney who practices a lot of different types of law won’t be up-to-date on the latest changes, or familiar with the judges, attorneys, mediators, experts, and other professionals whose involvement may be crucial to planning and executing a successful case.
It’s really important that your attorney is experienced in handling family law cases. That way, you know that your attorney is ready to handle whatever you could possibly throw at her.
3. Do you go to court often?
Ideally, your case will settle. Ideally, your attorney will be able to negotiate a perfect separation agreement, save as much of your money as possible, and avoid going to court.
But what if your situation ends up being less than ideal? What if something bad happens? What if something, that is beyond your control, escalates your divorce into something a little more complicated?
Hopefully, nothing like this will happen to you. But, if it does, you want to know that your divorce attorney is prepared to handle whatever happens. You want to know that your attorney is as comfortable negotiating your agreement as navigating the courtroom.
Some attorneys won’t go to court; others are inexperienced. Ask specific questions about the kind of case your attorney has handled, and whether she would be comfortable taking your case to court, if the situation called for it? You’re not necessarily looking for someone who is a “pit bull” (because those attorneys tend to unnecessarily drive up costs to keep fighting); you just want someone who is comfortable and confident.
4. How do you handle billing?
If you’re like most women facing divorce you’re at least a little bit worried about money. Divorce is expensive. It’s important that, before you hire an attorney, you ask about how the office handles billing. Are there minimum billing conventions? How is the retainer used? Is the unused portion refundable to you? What is the attorney’s hourly rate? Does she have a paralegal? What is the paralegal’s hourly rate? Is there a minimum fee for going to court? What about drafting an agreement? Ask the questions now, before you commit.
5. What is your firm’s policy on returning phone calls?
One of the biggest complaints most attorneys get is that clients find them hard to get in touch with. When something happens, you want to know that you can talk to your attorney and get your questions answered. Ask your attorney how she handles phone calls. Does she have a 24 hour return call policy? Does she prefer email? How will communications be handled?
The last thing you want is to spend several thousand dollars hiring someone who you’ll have a hard time getting in touch with if something happens.
6. Who else will be working on my case?
Most attorneys work with paralegals or legal secretaries. Usually, it’s in an effort to save you money, because paralegals and legal secretaries bill at a lower hourly rate than attorneys, and there are certain things that don’t need an attorney’s skill or expertise to accomplish. (Like sorting mail, setting dates, or making revisions to documents.) Still, you want to know who is going to be working on your case, ask about the division of labor (what does the paralegal handle versus the attorney), what everyone’s hourly rates are, and, of course, whether you can meet your entire team in person. You need to be able to make an informed decision, and you can’t do that without all the information.
Hiring an attorney is difficult, and it’s even more difficult because you have to make the decision at such an emotionally difficult time. Still, you don’t have to do it alone. Using these questions, you can get the information you need to be sure that you’re making the right choices for you and your family.
Of course, we’re happy to help, too. If you have more questions about getting started and hiring an attorney, it might be a good idea to attend one of our Second Saturday seminars. Each seminar is taught by one of our attorneys, and gives you the opportunity to ask questions—without paying a consult fee. If you’re ready to move forward now, though, you may prefer to go ahead and schedule that appointment. We’re here for you, and you can give our office a call at (757) 785-9761 to schedule now.