How to Make the Most of an Initial Consultation

It is not lost on me that consulting with a divorce lawyercan be one of the most intimidating and nerve-wracking aspects of the entire divorce process.

While someone may have contemplated divorce for a period of time, taking that step to actually meet with a lawyer, talk about their marriage, and learn what a divorce could look like makes everything real.  And real fast.

In my opinion, the most important thing both the lawyer and the potential client can do in an initial consultation is to have an open and honest conversation about the potential client’s goals to see if they are good match for an engagement in the event a divorce moves forward.  The first meeting is not only critical because it forms the basis of the attorney-client relationship, but it is also a meeting where both sides have the opportunity to interview each other to assess whether they will work well together.

Not every client is right for every lawyer, and not every lawyer is right for every client.

Preparing for an Initial Consultation.

Although lawyers readily admit they don’t like it, we all know that parties do their “internet due diligence” well before they meet with a lawyer.  This likely leads to more questions than answers given that divorce cases are highly fact-based, and also rooted in state law.  If you are reading an article published by a law firm in California on the division of community property, understand that is not going to apply to your case if you live in an equitable division state such as Illinois.

Come prepared with questions if you have been doing your own research.  Lawyers would much rather answer questions up front even if the potential client feels a bit naïve or is embarrassed to ask them.  I have had countless potential clients say, “This is probably a really dumb question,” or “I read this on the internet – I know what you must be thinking when I say that.”  Most of the time the questions are good questions and are not dumb at all!  Divorce lawyers understand (or anyone that you want to hire should understand) that while we do this every day, this is your first time going through this. We expect basic questions about the process and are happy to answer them.

Besides coming prepared with questions, here are some other things to do to prepare and what to expect:

  • Be prepared to give the lawyer a bit of factual background.  This is not because we are nosey.  The facts of your case, such as how long you have been married, how many children you have, both spouses’ employment and earnings history, and your net worth are all germane to your case.  The more information you are willing to give, the better suited the lawyer will be to outline the various possibilities in a potential divorce.
  • If you have inherited property or a significant amount of pre-marital property, be prepared to discuss the timeline of acquisition and where the assets are now held so the lawyer can identify potential non-marital claims.
  • If you have signed a prenuptial agreement or postnuptial agreement, the lawyer needs to know that.  It may also be helpful to send such agreement ahead of time if the lawyer wants to review it prior to speaking with you.
  • If you or any of your children have significant health concerns, you should be prepared to give an overview of those concerns so the lawyer can assess whether those could impact your divorce.  Not every health issue affects a divorce, but getting those issues on the table earlier rather than later is usually better.
  • If you or your spouse have any anticipated significant changes on the horizon such as a new job, a recent job loss, or a potential move, it is important to alert the lawyer to that moving target.  One of the most challenging aspects of divorce cases is that families are not static.  Jobs changes, children change schools, and lives are in constant motion.  While it may be preferable to keep things as static as possible during a divorce, that is not always possible.
  • If you have concerns about substance abuse, addictive behaviors, or domestic violence, it is critical that you tell the lawyer early on as this could form the basis for not only what process is selected for the divorce, but the lawyer needs to be aware of these concerns as early as possible because potential advice or strategy may be different if these elements or present.

What you should be asking.

  1. What processes are available for getting a divorce?  What process does the lawyer you are interviewing engage in most regularly?  Why is that their preferred process?
    There are multiple avenues for getting a divorce and any lawyer who you consult with should be open to speaking about all potential processes, even if they prefer one process over the other, or typically practice in one process.  If they do have a preferred process, you should feel comfortable asking them why that is their preferred process to see if your goals align with what process they are suggesting.
  2. How will the lawyer staff your case?
    Different lawyers and law firms staff cases differently, and the time to find that out is not after you receive your first bill.  It is wise to ask how the lawyer or law firm bills, how your case is staffed and at what rate, and how work is distributed if the law firm takes a team approach to each case.  There is no one right or wrong way to staff a case.  Each case should be staffed in a way that is reasonable and appropriate in light of the issues that must be addressed.  But it is important for the client to know how their case will be staffed and billed prior to signing an engagement agreement.
  3. How will the work get delivered?
    Email tends to be the preferred method of working for most lawyers because it provides the maximum flexibility in terms of delivery mechanisms and timeliness.  But not all email is the same and everyone’s inboxes are on overload these days.  As an alternative, client portals are becoming more and more common as are encrypted file sharing services.  Understanding the level of technology a lawyer employs is now a standard area of inquiry in consultations so the client understands what is expected in terms of communication.
  4. How will the desired process match the pace at which you wish to work?
    If one of your goals is to get divorced as quickly as possible, you should be asking the lawyer what process are available to help accomplish that.  If, for example, you believe your spouse and you can come to a reasonable agreement with minimal discovery and negotiations, you may not need the assistance of a judge to help you reach a settlement.  However, if there are substantial potential legal issues, one party does not trust the other party to make a truthful disclosure of income or assets, and a judge may be necessary to help sort through the legal issues in play, you need to have a discussion about a reasonable litigation timeline in the county in which the case will proceed.
  5. What happens if you and your spouse are not moving at the same pace?
    This is an often over-looked question because understandably, clients are uncomfortable during an initial consult, and are overwhelmed.  But if the goal of one party is to move efficiently, while the other party is still feeling like the rug has been pulled out from underneath them, there is not a mutual meeting of the minds in terms of how quickly the process will move forward.  One approach would be to just hammer the case through the court system and force the other party to deal with the matter in a litigation context – which could happen.  When the court is involved, it sets deadlines and manages the case itself.  Another approach is to make sure both parties are getting the support that they need and moving the case through a dispute resolution process with more flexible timelines.  This can be frustrating for the party who wants the case done yesterday.  But what is important to remember is that any settlement takes two parties – not one.  You cannot force someone to settle.  You can also not force someone to be reasonable.