It can be a big waste of time for both you and the lawyer if you are not prepared for your first meeting. Being unprepared may also end up costing you money because it will take longer for the lawyer you hire to get up to speed on your legal matter.
First of all, the lawyer will want to know who you are and how you can be contacted. The lawyer may also ask for a personal and business background. He or she will clearly want to understand your situation. Thus, you need to write down anything that you consider be relevant background information and have it available for the lawyer. Also bring along any documents that you have.
Sometimes, a lawyer may also try to facilitate the information gathering process by sending you a questionnaire to fill out filled out in advance. If this happens, be sure to fill out the questionnaire and send it in to the lawyer’s office before the meeting. Also send along copies of any available documents that may be requested in the questionnaire.
Before you get too far into a meeting or conversation, the lawyer is going to want to know about possible conflicts of interest. If the lawyer or the lawyer’s firm represents anyone on the other side of the fence, he or she will have a conflict and will usually not be able to represent you.
Prepare a list of questions to take with you to your first meeting. You have to feel comfortable with your attorney. Remember that your lawyer is working for you. You want someone who is skilled, but you also have to get along with your lawyer. In theory, no question is too silly to ask. Keep in mind, though, that you do not want to scare a lawyer out of representing you. Questions you might ask a lawyer would include:
- What sort of experience do you have with divorces? How have you handled divorces like mine before? Without breaching client confidence, please tell me about them. How many divorces like mine did you handle in the past year?
- Do you specialize in divorces, or are divorces just a part of your practice?
- What can you do to help me understand the tax effect of the decisions I will have to make?
- What kind of resources can you make available to me to help me get through my divorce with as little pain as possible?
- Will anyone else in your office be working on my case? Can I meet them?
- How long have you been doing divorce work? How have you seen divorce and your practice change during this time? (More and more divorcing couples are taking control of their divorce, reducing the frequency of adversarial divorce and increasing their use of mediation. Some lawyers embrace and encourage these changes, and some don’t.)
- How will you charge me? What is your hourly rate? Do you charge for the time I spend with other lawyers, with paralegals, and/or with secretaries? If so, at what rate?
- Do you insist that I pay you a retainer up front, or will you allow me to pay you as you render services? In addition to the fees for your services, what expenses do you expect will be involved (for example, for private investigators, forensic accountants, physicians, and/or psychologists), and how will you charge me for them?
- Do you charge for faxes, copies, and long-distance telephone calls? How much? (Some lawyers consider these services an additional profit opportunity.)
- What’s your estimate of the total cost to me of this divorce? (Don’t be concerned if the lawyer resists answering this question. So much of the cost of a divorce depends on the degree of conflict between you and your spouse, and you know that better than the lawyer. You may learn a lot from the lawyer’s answer, however, so it’s helpful to ask.)
- Do you advocate mediation? What style of mediation do you prefer? In how many cases have you represented a client who was mediating his or her divorce? What mediators would you recommend? If my spouse and I mediate, will I have to pay you to be there the whole time, or can I use you simply as an coach on an as-needed basis?
- If I decide at any point I’d like to take control and negotiate directly with my spouse or with my spouse’s lawyer to save money, will you let me do that, using you as a coach? Or will you insist that all communications flow through you? How do you feel about unbundling of legal services in divorce?
- How can I keep the cost of my divorce down? Are there tasks that I can do myself to cut down on the amount you will charge me?
- What other services do you think I will need from you in connection with my divorce, such as bills of sale, deeds, trusts, and an updated will, and how much will you charge me to do them?
- Based on what you know about my case, how would you predict a judge would rule on it? What facts would make the ruling more in my favor? If my spouse were sitting here with you asking the same questions, how would you answer my spouse?
- Do you carry malpractice insurance? How much? Have you ever had to make a claim on your malpractice insurance? (Nationwide, it’s estimated that a third of lawyers do not carry malpractice insurance. This means that if one of those lawyers represented you poorly, even if you were able to get a judgment against them for their poor work, you might not be able to collect any money on the judgment.)
- Have you had any clients or former clients file grievances against you with the bar association? If so, please tell me about them.
- Do you track the satisfaction rate of your clients? How? What is your satisfaction rate? Don’t expect a positive answer to this question. Most lawyers can tell you only the vaguest generalities about the rate at which their clients are satisfied with their work. If you find one who actually measures satisfaction, you’ve found a rare bird indeed.