How to Prepare for a Family Law Initial Consultation
I got this question for the first time the other day – how do I prepare for an initial consultation – and I realized it’s something that I hadn’t specifically written on before. I’ve written about whether you can bring someone with you, what documents you should bring, what to expect, and so on, but never exactly on the topic of how to prepare for a consultation in advance.
Of course, on the one hand, it’s practical to think through the logistical issues of what (and who) you should bring with you, and to know what will happen during the course of that first hour with an attorney.
On the other hand, though, there’s more that goes into that hour than what happens during it. There’s a lot of lead up to that moment, and I’d be remiss if I didn’t address it as well.
How DO you prepare for meeting a family law attorney for an initial consultation?
Some good questions, of course. You want to sit down to a (fairly expensive, admittedly) hour with a professional, and you want to feel that you’ve put the effort in and that you’re comfortable, cool, calm, and collected – or as much as can reasonably be expected given the circumstances.
It’s not easy for anyone. It’s a difficult conversation. Admitting the depths of the difficulties you’ve experienced in your marriage is no easy feat.
Almost every woman in my office cries. And almost all of them apologize for it and tell me that they thought they’d do better, which never fails to surprise me. This is a shocking, agonizing, painstaking process. You’re human. As hurt or angry or frustrated or scared as you are, as done as you may feel with the situation as a whole, it’s still a different ballgame once you start taking actual, formal, calculated steps to end it.
So, I think I’d start there.
1. Have a plan to deal with the emotions of your divorce or custody case.
While you can talk to your attorney about your emotions, your attorney isn’t really trained to deal with these things. I’m always happy to talk about it, but then I wonder whether I give the best, most effective advice. Legally, sure – I know what I’m talking about, and I feel very confident I can help you along a path that will lead you to the happily ever after you’ve envisioned.
But emotionally? With respect to your mental health? I’m just woefully unqualified. You really would benefit from enlisting a licensed mental health professional to help you through.
You’re not crazy. I don’t think you are. And, really, crazy people probably don’t need therapy first and foremost – they need more serious medical intervention. You’re a normal person going through abnormally challenging circumstances. To come out better, stronger, smarter on the other side, you’ll want to enlist a team of professionals – including an attorney, but also, probably, including a therapist.
(Besides, attorneys can’t bill your insurance.)
If you set this up beforehand, you’ll be in a better position to deal with the challenges of your divorce, and that will put you ahead of the game.
2. Do some research about family law in Virginia.
Don’t come in totally blind. Then you’ll waste your hour getting the basics, and not get into the finer points as it relates to your case.
You don’t have to do anything crazy – like go to law school – but it’s a good idea to have a general understanding of basic principles before you meet with a lawyer.
Anything you don’t understand you can ask an attorney about, but you will probably find that there’s a good deal you DO understand. That can help you frame your thoughts before you meet with an attorney, rather than feeling shocked, surprised, or reactive in any way.
Nothing that happens in the initial consultation can create a situation that can’t be undone, but you are beginning to put the train on the tracks. What you say, how you react, and the picture you paint has a lot to do with the recommendations your attorney will make, the retainer she will give you, and what first steps she’ll start to begin to prepare to take. You can pump the brakes, or put that train on a different set of tracks, but you would be better served to start from the beginning with an idea of where you want to end up. A lot of that can come from having some degree of familiarity with the divorce process.
3. Do some soul searching. What are your goals throughout the divorce or custody process?
It’s only natural to respond emotionally in situations like this. I know I would, if it were me. None of us are superhuman.
But I often find that, when I have plenty of time to prepare for something, to collect my thoughts, to compose my arguments, and to be able to most effectively articulate my feelings and expectations, things end up better. Sure, I can launch into an immediate discussion – but that’s not when I’m at my best.
Probably you aren’t, either.
And if you’re for sure headed down this path, it’s a good idea to give it some consideration. Where do you want to wind up? What are your goals? If you could paint the perfect picture of what it’s like to be you post-divorce, what would it look like? How do you get there?
Your attorney can help you with some of the procedural stuff, but you’ll want to think about the personal, logistical, financial stuff. We’re an equitable distribution state – not a community property state – but still, things will probably be divided somewhere close to 50/50. What 50% do you want? What compromises could you make that would put him in a more conciliatory frame of mind? What could induce you to go to court, and what considerations would keep you out of it?
4. Be prepared to hear your attorney’s advice, whether it’s what you want to hear or not.
You probably have some pretty strong feelings about the situation you’re in. And you probably have some expectations surrounding what you feel you deserve – whether it’s a certain amount of spousal support or a certain amount of parenting time.
Your attorney, though, will give you advice. Being attorneys, we can also always back up our advice with very sound reasoning, explanations regarding the court, current law, recent cases, and other information we have at our disposal (but that you might not).
Whether you like the advice you receive or not, sleep on it. Give it some thought. Have an open, honest discussion with your attorney – whether at a second consultation, or after you’ve retained. It takes time to process these things, and if you’re overwhelmed, surprised, anxious, angry, or otherwise not in a good head space, you’ll need to take even more time.
Don’t be reactive. Listen. Think. And then, later, respond. Ask questions at any point, especially if you don’t understand or want to hear the reasoning behind a particular recommendation.
If you don’t trust the attorney’s advice, get a second opinion. If two (or three or four) attorneys say some version of the same thing, you may feel better about trusting her. Sometimes, we have to give advice – or make recommendations, or give answers – that we know our clients won’t like to hear. We don’t make the laws. But it can be difficult to hear, and we completely understand that.
So, take the time. Do the soul searching. And be prepared to hear your attorney’s recommendations.
For more information, or to meet with an attorney for your initial consultation ,give our office a call at 757-425-5200.