Here is a set of questions you should ask a divorce lawyer you intend to hire.
- Experience-related questions
- Operations-related questions
- Case-related questions
- Fees-related questions
There are two stages of hiring an effective and experienced family law attorney who is just right for your case: (1) Short-listing a few lawyers. (2) Interviewing them. In an earlier post, we have guided you on how to shortlist divorce lawyers. In this post, we will guide you on the questions that you should ask your potential attorney during the initial consultation.
How many divorce cases does your attorney’s handle at a time?
You are looking for a firm staffed with experienced lead attorneys who do not handle more than 35 cases (per attorney) at a time. According to our experience, any attorney who handles more than 35 cases at a time is overloaded with work. At the same time, you also do not want to work with an attorney who does not have a sufficient workload. An attorney may be relatively-free because people probably do not consider him effective.
You need to weigh both these factors (overloaded vs. relatively free) and also check whether the law firm has been in practice long enough to build a decent reputation.
How many cases are settled by your firm before trial?
If a law firm settles more than 97–98% of its cases before trial, it means that the firm is staffed with excellent negotiators. On the other hand, a law firm that goads its clients to fight it out in the courts, which leads to going to trial at an elevated rate, may either be trying to squeeze extra money from its clients or may not be staffed with skilled negotiators.
How many divorce cases have you resolved to the satisfaction of your clients?
Break this question down into several parts – for example, how many child custody cases have you taken on and how many of these have you resolved? Then ask about cases regarding alimony, property distribution, etc.
One way to determine how satisfied clients are with a law firm’s work is to look at how many public 5-star reviews the law firm has. 5-star reviews aren’t always 100% accurate, but they are a good general indicator of law firm quality.
How many of your firm’s cases were resolved by collaborative divorce?
Collaborative divorce resolution helps spouses reduce the financial and emotional cost of a divorce, and the process calmly resolves matters through negotiation and mediation. The settlement is quick, protects confidentiality, reduces stress, and allows the spouses to move on with their lives without any additional feelings of ill-will. Our firm believes that mediation and collaboration in negotiation are preferable, except when it is not possible, for example in high-conflict cases.
Do you know my spouse?
If the attorney knows your spouse, it can cause a conflict of interest.
Who will handle my case?
You are interviewing the attorney because you may hire him. So, ask him whether he/she or one of the team members will be handling your case. If the lawyer plans to assign the case to a team member, make sure that you trust the lawyer you are interviewing, as well as that lawyer’s team, and you are confident that the assigned team member will serve you well.
Who will assist you in my case?
The law firm you plan to hire must be adequately staffed as most cases need the assistance of paralegals and associates.
What work will you do and what will the associate/paralegals do? Who will negotiate my case or argue in the courts?
Of course, you want an experienced attorney to handle the key elements of your case, including negotiation and trial.
Who will take my calls and inform or clarify doubts – the attorney or the paralegal?
You want to know that your attorney will speak with you directly and systemically. You also want to know that the paralegal helping you knows your case and will answer your questions. During your consultation, ask what the law firm’s system is for systemic communication, how often you will be contacted per week, and who will contact you. If you don’t receive specific answers, then the law firm likely does not have a system for contacting and communicating with clients. That’s not good. Find a law firm in which both the attorneys and the paralegals systemically communicate with every client.
Will I receive copies of all documents when they are filed?
“Yes” is the answer you are looking for.
Will we strategize the case together?
You should lay out the facts and the evidence on the table, provide inputs, and collaborate with your attorney regarding strategy, realizing that your attorney ultimately decides which strategy will benefit you the most.
Will I receive feedback on any developments concerning the strategy adopted?
A responsible family law attorney always keeps his clients up-to-speed with any change in the strategy. Also, the attorney prepares them in advance for any meetings or negotiations.
Have you handled cases with the same circumstances as my case? If so, how did you approach that case, and what was the result?
If the lawyer has handled cases in which the circumstances were identical to the ones in your case and was successful, it could be a bonus. This is the type of lawyer you can consider hiring so long his answers to the other questions are satisfactory.
What negatives do you see in my case?
This is an important question that should be honestly answered by your lawyer. You need to be ready for the worst-case scenario and your attorney should help you understand both the best and the worst outcomes.
What are your personal feelings about alimony, property division, and child custody?
Ideally, you want to work with an attorney who is objective and does not allow his personal feelings to get in the way of his advice or arguments. If his personal views interfere with the case, and if they conflict with your opinion, it could affect the outcome of your case.
How do you bill clients?
Divorce lawyers usually charge fees based on billable hours (line-item billing) or flat fees. In the billable hours model, the fees are charged based on the time spent on your case. The attorney lists the tasks performed and charges you per task, and you get to know which task is completed and the time it took. Note that many divorce attorneys usually bill in 6- or 12-minute increments. In the flat fees model, the lawyer charges a flat fee, sometimes for the entire case, and sometimes for each stage of the case.
Are the trial fees different from the hourly rate?
Note that some attorneys charge a flat fee for days on which they attend a trial. Clarify these as well.
How much is your retainer?
A retainer is an upfront amount of money you pay to get your case started and to keep it going. Retainers can range from almost nothing (usually, inexperienced and low-skill attorneys require very little for their retainers) to very expensive (large firms that often take corporate cases will charge exorbitant amounts for a family law retainer). The most important factor when deciding whether to pay an attorney’s retainer is whether you trust the attorney, the attorney’s system, and the attorney’s team, and whether you believe the retainer is worth the value of what that attorney will do for you and your family.
What happens if my retainer is depleted?
Once you know the retainer amount, you want to understand how the retainer system works. Some attorneys allow the retainer to deplete completely, before replenishing it. In fact, most attorneys do this. It’s not a good system because once you get below $0 in your retainer and you’re in the negative, you owe your attorney money, and your attorney becomes your banker. When your attorney is your banker, the relationship changes and your attorney is constantly coming after you for money instead of focusing on your case.
You want to find an attorney who always keeps money in your retainer so you aren’t in the negative. This type of retainer is called an “evergreen retainer,” and that’s the type you want your attorney to have.
How much will I have to pay towards court filing fees, process server fees, court reporter fees , telephone calls, and out-of-pocket expenses?
Overall, based on your experience in cases that were similar to mine, how much will my case cost?
You want to know how much other cases like yours have cost in the past so you have an idea about how much yours will cost. If the attorney doesn’t know this number, it might be because the attorney is inexperienced. When you receive the number and you feel comfortable with the attorney, the attorney’s system, how well the attorney will serve you and your family, and you’re comfortable with how the attorney will approach your case, it’s time to decide whether you want to hire that attorney.