Attorneys Should Make Their Clients Feel Comfortable
Many, though not all, divorcing clients experience various emotions when their marriage ends, such as fear, anger, hurt, anxiety, or even depression. They may have to endure constant conflict at home; they may be losing sleep or have deep concerns about how their children will handle the impending divorce news.
As a result of the emotions surrounding a breakup, divorce clients are not generally at their best. Attorneys need to keep this in mind as they approach the first client meeting.
Lawyers should try to make their divorce clients as comfortable as possible, which may require the following:
- compassion—attorneys are not therapists, but they should be sensitive to their client’s emotional state
- clear and careful explanations of things—instead of rattling off complex legal theories, statutes, and case law, attorneys should explain the process to the client
- avoid excessive legal jargon—it may be a challenge for some clients to understand complex legal terminology, and
- handouts—divorce clients may have difficulty concentrating or remembering everything a lawyer says during a meeting. It’s helpful for the attorney to provide pen and paper for notetaking or handouts that include the topics discussed during the meeting.
Clients Should Make Sure Their Attorney Is Competent
If you’re going through a divorce and working with an attorney, make sure the attorney you’ve chosen to speak with is experienced and competent. Before you meet with the attorney, look for reviews online and check with the state bar associations to see if past clients have filed cases of professional misconduct against the attorney.
Also, the attorney’s experience must match your needs. Are you in a complicated, international custody battle? Then make sure the attorney you plan to speak to has been practicing custody for several years. Are you the spouse of a wildly successful venture capital investor? Then make sure your attorney has the know-how to handle the complicated financial analysis that is sure to be a major part of your case. A complex divorce may require an attorney who has practiced law for several years.
On the other hand, if you have a simple divorce (no children or assets), a younger attorney may meet all your needs. You can check with the state bar association to determine how long the attorney has practiced law in your state. If you ask the attorney to list prior experience and the attorney doesn’t answer, it might not be a good fit.
You should find an attorney with whom you can carry on a good working relationship. After all, you may be spending a significant amount of time together. Plus, you’re going to be making life-changing decisions in your divorce, so you want an attorney that you can trust and someone who can explain your rights, responsibilities, and options clearly.
If you’re worried about forgetting everything your attorney says, it may be a good idea to ask for recap emails summarizing your meetings. However, this can become expensive (remember, attorneys charge for their time). If that’s not practical, take notes during meetings so you’ll remember any tasks your attorney asked you to complete, and you can take the next steps without excessive follow-up calls or emails.
Questions to Ask A Potential Lawyer
You may feel intimidated by asking a potential lawyer about education, licensing, or professional experience. However, you’re going to pay a lot of money for legal services, so it’s important to ask questions before hiring someone to represent you. Some common questions to ask a prospective divorce lawyer may include:
- do you have experience with cases like mine, specifically?
- do you know my state or county’s specific rules and laws in this case?
- how long have you practiced in this field of law?
- are you comfortable taking my case?
- do you have experience with my judge or my ex-spouse’s attorney?
- do you have special certifications through your state bar association?
Do Divorce Lawyers Typically Offer Free Consultations?
Many lawyers and law firms offer one free initial consultation per client, which may be in-person, over the phone, or via Zoom. No law requires attorneys to provide free services to potential clients, so it’s important that you ask about the cost before you schedule your initial meeting. If a lawyer offers a free consultation, this is your opportunity to meet with and determine whether that attorney is a good match for your case. Free consultations are not the place for in-depth legal questions, so don’t go into a consultation expecting the attorney to answer case-specific questions. When you decide to hire an attorney, your first meeting after you sign the retainer agreement will include in-depth conversations about your case.
What Should Happen at the First Meeting?
Once you decide to hire an attorney, you’ll sign an agreement that details the attorney and the client’s expectations. A retainer agreement should lay out cost, billing procedures, and details about who will work on your case. For example, lawyers may have a team of associates and paralegals researching or filing documents in your case in large law firms. At the same time, the attorney may only appear in court on your behalf. However, in small law firms, your lawyer may be your only point of contact throughout the entire case. Once you have a contract, you’ll schedule your first meeting with your lawyer. What happens at your first meeting depends on what’s happening in your divorce case.
In some cases, clients hire lawyers after filing for divorce (or receiving divorce papers). In other cases, the spouses have already agreed to a divorce and pledged to use a collaborative divorce process rather than all-out “litigation” (meaning fighting it out in court). Finally, some clients face an emergency—their spouse may be draining bank accounts in anticipation of the divorce, or they may be the victim of domestic violence and need immediate protection from a court. The client’s circumstances control the initial conversation and the steps the attorney will take after the first meeting.
Typically, a client comes in with general questions about an impending or recently-filed divorce. Most lawyers will review the various divorce processes available (collaborative law, divorce mediation, or litigation) and describe the steps for each. From there, you and your lawyer can decide what steps to take next.
The attorney needs to get to know the client as a person and learn as much as possible about the client’s spouse and children (if any). You should expect the attorney to request a detailed client information sheet, which contains all the necessary information an attorney needs without extra phone calls or emails to the client. Because the attorney depends on the accuracy of the information you provide, it’s important to answer the attorney’s questions and questionnaires honestly and completely. An attorney should try to understand the client’s psychological and financial situation to make any necessary referrals to psychotherapists, divorce coaches, estate attorneys, or financial planners for specialized advice.
Many divorce attorneys work closely with other professionals to ensure the client doesn’t have any unanswered divorce-related questions. Remember, an attorney cannot act as a tax advisor or a psychologist, for example, so it’s essential that divorcing spouses hire the right professionals and keep their attorneys informed.
Review relevant divorce-related issues
It’s impossible to predict exactly what will “happen” in a divorce, but it’s best to address all the major issues that may come up, such as
- custody of any minor children
- child support
- alimony—whether either spouse should pay and if so, how much and for how long, and
- division of property and debts.
At the end of the first meeting, clients generally leave with homework, which includes learning as much as possible about the couple’s finances in terms of assets, liabilities, and ongoing expenses. In many marriages, only one spouse is in charge of the finances. However, before a judge can finalize a divorce, both spouses need to have a complete understanding of the couple’s incomes, assets, and debts. If you can provide the details about your finances at the first meeting with your new lawyer, the meeting will be much more productive.
Is the Meeting Confidential?
Yes. Sometimes, spouses aren’t completely sure that they want a divorce but want to know what they can expect if they go forward. The law protects all attorney-client communications, and a client’s right to privacy is absolute, so divorce clients shouldn’t have to worry about their spouses finding out.
Every attorney hopes that clients will leave their first attorney meeting feeling that the attorney heard and understood their concern and that their lawyer is tuned in to their specific needs. They should also view their lawyer as experienced, competent, and accessible—someone who can guide them through the stressful time ahead.