Interviewing Your Divorce Lawyer

Call the office of your brightest prospect and tell them you are looking for an attorney to handle your divorce. You’d like to schedule an appointment at the first opportunity. Ask if there is any charge for the initial consultation. Many attorneys feel this initial, exploratory conference is best handled without charge, or will waive the charge if you ask in advance. Don’t ruin a good thing, however, by trying to turn the meeting into an opportunity to get a lot of free legal advice. If there is a charge, pay it and look upon it as a wise investment in your future.

Schedule interviews with two or three other bright prospects to keep the process from dragging out for weeks. See three or more attorneys before you choose, at least one of whom is a certified family law specialist. This is the most important decision of your divorce case. Continue to schedule one or two appointments ahead, then cancel the other appointments when you have found the attorney you’re looking for.

Set your own pace. My client Betty spent nearly two months looking for just the right attorney; but then, Betty would never really be satisfied with anything less than the total invalidation of her husband Eric as a human being. You should be able to find your attorney within a week or two.

Bring your Case Evaluation, Attorney Checklist and questions to the meeting with your attorney. Let the attorney lead the conference. You are there to see how the attorney handles herself or himself, not to show off your knowledge. Make sure you ask your questions, and provide the basic information that you have summarized, to see how this attorney will go about meeting your needs.

Now, let’s cover a few questions you will ask your attorney. What is the attorney’s hourly rate? Attorneys all seem to charge too much, but you generally get what you pay for, at least on a relative basis. An attorney with a high hourly rate that reflects a high skill level may actually save you a lot of money over a less experienced attorney. However, beware of a few inexperienced attorneys who believe they will attract more business if they have a high hourly rate. Don’t make your decision on hourly rate alone, one way or the other.

Ask for a preliminary estimate of the range of attorney’s fees and costs that you may expect from each attorney you interview. Also request a tentative plan of the steps they think will be necessary for your case. You’re not really price shopping, and anyway this is like asking for an estimate on remodeling your home "as needed" and "sight unseen." It’s simply part of sizing up your prospective attorney. Of course, you will need to deal with the question of how you’ll pay these expenses. You will feel different levels of comfort with the way different attorneys estimate what will have to be done.

How much does the attorney ask for a retainer? This will be a deposit to your account, and your attorney will bill against it. The retainer should be appropriate for your case, that is, to the work anticipated, and your financial status. The retainer is not intended to cover all the anticipated expenses, but simply to get started and some distance down the road. It should be adequate to carry you through the time at which you obtain your first set of temporary orders, either by stipulation or contested hearing.

You should be able to obtain representation even if you are unable to pay a retainer. For example, although you may not have cash available, there may be substantial assets that can be used to pay the fees and costs once they are sold. The attorney may want a security interest, that is, a lien much like the bank that holds the mortgage on the house, to protect his or her claim for fees. If so, you’ll want to review that security agreement very carefully before signing it. You should be strongly encouraged to have the agreement reviewed by independent counsel. If you don’t have access to funds that exist, your attorney may advise you to demand, through court proceedings, that your spouse advance funds to you so you can prepare your case and protect your rights.

Ask the attorney who will be working on your case. I’d hate to see you spend all this time only to find out later that a new associate you’ve never met will be learning at your expense. If you chose this attorney, you have a right to expect that he or she will be the one working for you. It will be encouraging, however, if the attorney says a paralegal or law clerk may be used to assist in the preparation of the case. This is an efficient delegation of routine tasks to support staff at a lower hourly rate.

Finally, if the attorney hasn’t brought it up, ask whether he or she can take your case now. The attorney may not have the time available or the experience necessary; perhaps, he or she may not feel they can work with you. Let the attorney know if you have another meeting scheduled with someone else you want to consider before you make up your mind.