Questions to ask YOURSELF before you hire an attorney

Posted on Jan 7, 2015 by Katie Carter

Depending on the law firm and attorney you hire, there may be several people involved in your case.  In addition to you and your attorney, you’ll probably also have a paralegal and a secretary working on your case, too.  In some cases, you may also have an associate attorney or an intern working on your case, too.

Why are so many people involved in my case?

Law firms do this for all sorts of different reasons, but the primary reason is to save money and improve efficiency.

Attorneys, associates, paralegals, secretaries, and interns are all worth different amounts.  Most family law firms bill by the hour, with different hourly rates attributed to different people at different levels in the hierarchy.  For the things that don’t require a law degree (like opening mail, sorting documents, and preparing files), non attorneys are often used—both in an effort to save the attorney’s time for things that DO require a law degree, but also to help prevent you being over-billed.  You don’t want to pay an attorney’s hourly rate to have your mail sorted, do you?  Of course not!  Especially not when you could pay someone else (like a paralegal) a much, much lower hourly rate to do it instead!

Some people in a law firm don’t even have hourly rates at all, so the work that they happen to do on your case is totally free—you’re not billed any extra for it!

By doing this, the attorney is able to keep her focus on the things that do require her experience and expertise.  That way, she’s able to keep all of her cases moving forward quickly and expediently, rather than being bogged down by tasks that really don’t require a law degree to complete.  It’s mutually beneficial to both you and your attorney—to you, because you save money by not paying the attorney’s hourly rate for handling simpler tasks and because your case moves forward more quickly, and to your attorney, because she is then able to delegate less meaningful tasks and keep all of her cases on track.

How do I find out who’s who?

Ask!  When you hire your attorney, or just before you make the decision to hire, you should find out exactly who the members of your team are.  At our firm, we provide information like this in our retainer agreement.  (A retainer agreement is a legal contract that pretty much sums up every aspect of the attorney/client relationship that we’re undertaking.)  It specifically tells you who your attorney is and who else will be working on your case.  At a minimum, it will be an attorney and a paralegal.  In other cases, you may also have an associate attorney listed.

You should ask about all of the people involved on your case, including what their specific credentials are, what their level of experience is, what kinds of things they will be handling, and how much they bill per hour.  Not only that, but you should also feel comfortable asking to meet each member of your team.  Don’t you want to know who else is working on your case?  I would!

You can also ask for more information about how the law firm works.  Ask whether there are any secretaries or other people to whom you can speak without paying an hourly fee.  At most offices, the people who answer the phones don’t have an hourly fee—even though they’re pretty knowledgeable about processes within the office.  If you have a simple question, you’re often a lot better off if you’re able to just talk to the person who answers when you call in.

What kinds of questions can I ask a secretary?

You’d be surprised how many questions come up in a divorce case.  A lot of questions are procedural, like, “What’s the next step?” or “What do I do now?”  Those types of things are usually questions that a secretary or a paralegal can answer for you.  For example, they can tell you, “Well, your pendente lite hearing is scheduled for February 6th,, and you have a 10:00 appointment with your attorney on Friday, January 30th to prepare.”  If you’re wondering whether your discovery documents were sent to opposing counsel, a paralegal or a secretary can quickly and easily tell you.  If you want to know whether the signed complaint has been received back from opposing counsel, that, too, is something a secretary or a paralegal can find out for you right away.

Okay, so what CAN’T you ask?  Well, legal questions need to be answered by an attorney.  That doesn’t mean you can’t talk to the paralegal about it; in many cases, the paralegal can follow up with the attorney to find out the answer and then give you a call back.  (If that happens at our law firm, you’ll only pay the paralegal’s hourly rate.)  Legal questions are complicated, because they require experience to answer—not only do you have to know the law involved, but you also have to do some critical thinking about how the law (and the particular details of your specific case) might apply.  In some cases, you might answer a question one way, but in another situation you might feel the need to give an entirely different answer.

Attorneys are paid for their judgment and advice; it’s our job, basically, to keep our clients safe and in the strongest position possible to get the best results possible.  We carefully weigh the advantages and disadvantages of different courses of action to come up with particular recommendations for each client.  So, legal questions aren’t the kind of thing that a secretary or a paralegal will be able to answer for you—but that doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t fully utilize them for everything else that needs to get done.

Every law firm works a little bit differently, and I can really only tell you about what I know—which is how my law firm operates.  If you’re planning on hiring an attorney in the near future (or if it’s something you’re even remotely considering), you should ask questions before you sign that retainer agreement.  Ask how the office handles each case, and what the distribution of labor is like.  You want to know that you have trained, experienced, competent people handling your case—after all, it’s your divorce, and it’s incredibly important, right?  (Let’s just say that divorce is the biggest financial transaction in most women’s lives!  It handles division of everything—personal property, real property, retirement accounts, debt, mortgages, and even custody and visitation of the children, among other things.  Yes, it’s definitely incredibly important, and it will affect your credit, your finances, and your stability for years to come.  Don’t underestimate the importance of your divorce.)

Ask who will be handling what.  Ask about credentials.  Ask about experience.  Question the attorney, and make sure you’re comfortable with the way everything is handled.  Does the attorney draft his or her own documents, or does the paralegal do it?  Does the attorney review the documents?  How often can you expect to talk to the attorney, and when will you talk to the paralegal?  It matters.  Whatever the attorney’s answer is, make sure that you’re comfortable with it.  It’s up to you; I’m not telling you what kind of arrangement is good, and what kind of arrangement is bad.  Attorneys handle their cases in tons of different ways, and there’s not a right or a wrong way.  But is the attorney’s way of handling cases one that works for you?  Are you comfortable?  Do you trust the attorney and her team to get you the results you need?  At the end of the day, you should feel supremely confident in your attorney’s abilities.  If you’re not, why not get a second opinion?  You wouldn’t let a doctor just start cutting on you, would you?  Of course not!  You’d ask around, you’d Google a few things (about the doctor’s background, the specific procedure, the percentages of people that die under anesthesia—oh, wait, that’s just me), and you’d talk to a second doctor to make sure that what the first doctor said makes medical sense.  It’s the same with attorneys—if you hear something surprising, or something you’re not sure about, get a second opinion.

By the time you put the tip of your pen to that retainer agreement, you should be confident that you made the right decision, comfortable about the team of people working with you, and collected.

What red flags should I be looking out for?

Remember how I said there was no right way or wrong way?  Well, I didn’t mean that there’s absolutely no way to do things wrong: trust me, there is.  It’s true that there’s a lot of different ways to do things, and that things aren’t necessarily wrong just because they’re different.  That doesn’t mean that every attorney does things right, though.  In fact, lots of attorneys (and lots of law offices) do things terribly, terribly wrong.

So, how do you know if your attorney (or his law office) is doing things wrong?

You should be able to tell a lot about your prospective attorney and the general culture of his office when you go there for your initial consultation.  Here are 4 questions you should ask yourself after you meet with your potential attorney:

1.    How are you treated by office staff?

This is huge.  When you called into the office to schedule your appointment, how were you treated?  When you walked into the office for your appointment, how did the receptionist treat you?

It’s important that, at all points in the process, you are treated kindly, respectfully, empathetically, and professionally.  Everyone with whom you come into contact in the office should make you feel welcome and comfortable.  It’s pretty difficult to have a good experience if, when you go into the office, you feel like the person you’re talking to is inconvenienced by you or rushed to handle something else.  If the firm isn’t acting like you’re important when you first come in, chances are they won’t feel like you’re important once you hire, either.

2.    How does the attorney treat you?

Obviously, the way the attorney treats you is important, too.  Warm fuzzies from the waiting room can quickly evaporate if your attorney is cold or unreachable in the appointment.  If the attorney is checking email or his cell phone, being interrupted by paralegals or secretaries, or seems, for whatever reason, to not be listening to what you’re saying, you should think carefully about whether this person is someone you’d like to hire.

You shouldn’t have to wait to feel like you (and your case) are important.  You’re important now, and you’re important later—you should never feel like your attorney isn’t making you a priority.

3.    Did you get satisfactory answers to your questions?

Your attorney can’t promise you the sun, the moon, and the stars—they just aren’t hers to give.  But she can paint a realistic picture of what you can expect.  After you’ve had an opportunity to talk about your goals and objectives, your attorney should help you come up with a custom tailored plan of action designed to help meet as many of those goals as possible.  Do you feel like you’re being heard?  Do you feel like you and your attorney are talking about the same things?  Do you like the plan your attorney is outlining?  Of course, you should temper this analysis with a bit of realism—it really isn’t possible to get everything.  But, on the other hand, you shouldn’t hire a negative Nancy who has a pitifully dismal view of your case, either.  Think critically, and ask yourself—Am I okay with this as a possible outcome?  Can I do better?  Would another attorney be able to give me better results?

Again, don’t be afraid to ask for a second opinion.  It may be that the second opinion takes you right back to the first attorney, but at least you will have asked the questions now, and you won’t be wondering later whether you would have made a different decision if you had all the information up front.

4.    Do you feel comfortable with the attorney and staff?

How comfortable do you feel when you’re talking to your attorney and paralegal?  During the course of your divorce, you’ll probably be having some pretty uncomfortable discussions—about your marriage, your finances, and your future.  You’ll need to be comfortable telling your attorney what is and isn’t acceptable, what you’d like to see, and how she can work with you to help give you the best opportunity for post-divorce success.  Attorneys aren’t miracle workers, but you might be surprised at what we can accomplish when we know what our client’s particular goals are.  There’s often a lot of leeway, especially when we’re drafting separation agreements, and we can usually come up with something unique and creative when the situation calls for it.

Your attorney should be approachable.  That doesn’t mean you have to be BFF and tell all your secrets to her (in fact, you probably shouldn’t); it just means that, when push comes to shove, you’re able to be honest and vocalize your needs without feeling embarrassed or uncomfortable.

Remember: you have a role in the outcome, too.  Your attorney can’t be a mind reader, so you’ll have to do some of the talking and some of the planning.  Hire someone that you’re comfortable with, and it’ll be a lot easier.

These are easy, because these are questions you can ask yourself!  Listen to your gut, and make a solid, carefully considered decision about whom to hire.  You’re going to be a team, and you want to be sure that you’ve picked the best people possible to work with.  The attorney you hire will have a big impact on your divorce.  Don’t underestimate the importance of the decision you’re making.

If you need help, want to chat about our attorneys, or need a little extra guidance, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.