You and Your Divorce Lawyer: What to Expect from Each Other
Getting Started With a Family Lawyer
The first time that you call, a family law attorney might speak with you briefly over the phone to introduce himself and to get a sense of what services you might need. He may offer to schedule an initial paid meeting in his office. It is a good idea to ask the lawyer whether he charges a fixed fee for the consultation, so that you know beforehand what you are getting into.
Do not hesitate to contact other lawyers before you set up a meeting with any of them. This is your chance to get an idea about how different law offices will handle your calls in days to come. Any law office worth your time and money will handle your call professionally and courteously.
The first meeting with a divorce attorney is an opportunity to get important information about your case, and to decide whether this lawyer is the one who can get the job done for you. Lawyers are just like everybody else; some are more skilled and experienced than others, have better “people” skills, or are just easier to get along with. Just as with any new relationship, pay close attention to your “gut feeling.” As you discuss your circumstances and listen to the lawyer’s reaction to your concerns, give some thought to the person on the other side of the desk. Did he try to put you at ease? Is he really listening to what you are telling him? Does he seem to understand your situation? Does the advice he gives you make sense? If he has difficulty answering a question, does he explain the reason? Is this person someone you will be able to trust with your well-being during this painful and challenging period of your life?
Although a single meeting is not likely to give you every answer to each question, by the time the meeting ends you should emerge with a good understanding of where you stand, what your choices are, what could be coming next, and what you can do to protect yourself.
Six Things You Should Expect from a Family Lawyer
Your lawyer will meet all deadlines, keep up with developments in your case, and will be thoroughly prepared whenever he appears in court. He will get you ready for your role in the case, and will give you his best effort to make the most of every opportunity.
Your divorce lawyer will tell you what you need to know to be able to understand your options and their possible consequences. A skilled practitioner can give you the benefit of the experiences of others, showing you the strengths and pitfalls of each possible course, and will offer you suggestions to help you try to achieve your goals without having to fight. He will be attentive to your concerns, and will offer meaningful perspectives.
Any family lawyer who doesn’t "call it as he sees it" isn't serving you the way you deserve. If you lack a true picture of your situation as it appears to your attorney, your decisions will not be informed ones. A good lawyer may not always be able to deliver glad tidings, but you should always know what he thinks about your case.
He will return your telephone calls with reasonable speed, and also will keep you informed of important developments in your case. He will answer your questions clearly, and in plain English.
5. Respect and Courtesy
Your divorce attorney will treat you as a valued client, and will behave professionally toward everyone who is connected to your case. Before you start looking around for a "bulldog" or a "spitfire," consider that the lawyer who sacrifices decency in favor of zealous representation can actually make things worse for their clients by creating unnecessary rancor and pointless fighting. While that might be great news for lawyers who charge by the hour for their professional services, it can be hard on the client who has to pay the bill.
You can feel comfortable speaking freely to your lawyer, provided that you do not tell him that you are about to commit a crime. Be aware that your lawyer will not help you hide assets, or otherwise permit you to misrepresent the truth.
Things You Should NOT Expect from Your Family Lawyer
All lawyers who are licensed in Pennsylvania (and presumably, those licensed elsewhere) are required to conform to a professional code of ethics that (in Pennsylvania) is enforced by the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. To a good lawyer a solid reputation for ethical conduct among his colleagues and in the courtroom is tremendously valuable, and that reputation is one of the benefits he can offer to his clients. A family law attorney’s reputation is only ever as good as the faith he keeps today. When you retain your lawyer, never expect a mere “mouthpiece,” soap-opera courtroom drama, or an underhanded attitude that says, “the ends justify the means.” Your lawyer’s effectiveness lies in the good advice he gives you, and in his skillful handling of your case. Undirected aggression and expensive bluster help nobody except the attorney. Other things not to expect your lawyer to do:
- Manufacture or escalate a battle where it is not necessary.
- Tolerate disrespectful behavior, or turn a blind eye toward it.
- Engage in name-calling contests with his opponent at your expense.
- Hide your income and assets.
- Make important decisions on your case without discussing them with you beforehand.
- Create or escalate a battle for its own sake.
- Speak falsely to his opponent or to the court, or permit you to do so.
- Offer you credit as an alternative to prompt payment.
Perhaps most important of all, it is a mistake to expect that your lawyer will take sole responsibility for your case as might the mechanic who keeps your car on the road. Your active involvement is essential to the success of your case. Because you are facing some of the most critical life choices you may ever have to make, that will affect both you and your children, you must never surrender them to someone else no matter how qualified that person may seem. At the end of the day, this is your case, and the consequences of your choices will likewise be your
Six Things Your Lawyer Will Expect from You
1. Follow Advice
Your family law attorney will offer you the benefit of his education and experience, a cool head with an objective perspective, and the experiences of other people who also faced what you are dealing with. He knows that justice often comes to the deserving only after a fight, and also that some kinds of justice and vindication are beyond the reach of any judge. He knows how judges want you to present your case (and what they do not want to hear!), and how they might view the things you say and do as your case moves forward. While your family attorney can never guarantee a favorable result, he can suggest approaches that can help guide you around the traps that are common to family law matters, and help you get the most of your case’s strengths.
No one leads a perfect life, and there is no such thing as a perfect case. If you do not inform your lawyer about the skeletons hiding in your closet, he cannot be ready when your spouse opens the door and puts them on display! Your divorce attorney can find out about the challenges of your case in his office from you, or in the courtroom from your spouse.
3. Stay Involved and Stay in Touch
Pay attention to your case, and be your attorney’s active partner and maybe even his clerk. Be sure that you open, review and (as necessary) respond promptly to everything he sends to you. Return his telephone calls. Keep him updated about developments that may affect your case.
4. Courtesy, Respect and Common Sense
At a time in your life when you might be least able to keep your head cool, it matters all the more that you do so. Even spouses who never set out to fight can find themselves under fire in the wake of careless words or a moment’s impulsive anger. You have no control over your spouse’s actions, but you can – and must – keep control over yourself and your conduct. If you imagine that you are being recorded every time you deal with your spouse and act accordingly, and you make sure that you are prepared to answer for every one of your choices, you will never have to fear the truth. Your lawyer can be a sword-and-shield for you, or he can be your broom-and-dustpan; your conduct can make all the difference between them.
5. Follow Court Orders
It is rare that a lawyer will advise you not to follow a court order. Make it a point always to obey them, even when doing so is difficult. Failure to do so can leave you facing penalties that run from frustrating to crippling, depending on the nature of your violation.
6. Give Him What He Asks For
Your lawyer may ask you for a variety of information and documentation as your case moves forward, or you may have to produce it for your spouse as part of the litigation process. Be diligent and prompt in responding to these requests, be organized, and discuss with your lawyer as early as possible any questions or concerns.
Who Will Be Handling Your Case?
The person who retains a lawyer also retains the entire law office. Law firms will sometimes distribute their caseloads in-house. Senior lawyers will often assign casework, and sometimes even whole case files, to qualified associates. Some firms will adopt a “team” approach to their workloads, coordinating their efforts to ensure that work is handled in a prompt and efficient manner. Routine tasks such as document preparation and legal research often are assigned to lawyer associates or support staff members. This is normal, and when properly managed it can allow a law firm to streamline its operation by assigning a job to the most qualified and/or lowest-cost person who is capable of properly handling the task.
In addition, attorneys often share each others’ workloads when one of them is overloaded, double-booked, or simply unavailable. For you, the bottom line is that you are entitled to informed and competent representation. You deserve to be kept informed about how your case progresses. If you develop concerns about how your case is being handled, you are entitled to an explanation.
How Much Your Divorce Will Cost You
This is an excellent question to ask, but often it is nearly impossible to answer meaningfully unless your situation is relatively uncomplicated and the specific service you need is offered for a fixed fee. Every case is unique, and the cost for legal services will depend heavily upon the amount of time the lawyer has to spend working for you. Lawyers usually account for time spent working on your case by tenths of an hour. Minimum fees may apply for some services. As with any other investment, legal services are at their most cost-effective when there is a reasonable prospect of a good return, or when they are your best opportunity to avoid damage much greater than the fees you will pay. A good lawyer will consider the cost of his own services when advising you about your options.
Lawyers usually work on a retainer basis. This means that you will pay a certain amount of money to your attorney in advance, to create a fund that he will draw against to pay himself as he earns the money. A retainer fund must be replenished if it becomes too depleted, and you should review the terms of your written fee agreement carefully. Never expect your divorce lawyer to work for you on credit. Unless your fee agreement says otherwise, retainers are usually refundable to the extent that they have not been earned by services rendered and expenses incurred.
There are some things you can try to do that may help keep your legal costs down, so that you get the best “bang” for your legal buck:
- Keep communications with your lawyer direct and to the point, while avoiding the false economy that tempts you into cutting a conversation so short that your lawyer cannot get the information he needs, or give you the advice that you need.
- Tell your lawyer about possible problems before they manifest. Do not be afraid to ask questions or express concerns. It is usually cheaper to stay out of trouble, than it is to get out of trouble. Do not merely look before you leap, make sure you discuss before you leap. Giving you the information that will let you keep yourself safe and protected is part of your attorney’s job.
- Consider as dispassionately as you can which battles are worth fighting, and what you might be willing to give up in exchange for the peace of mind that closure can bring. Your lawyer should be able to offer both suggestions for useful approaches, and helpful perspectives.
- If you take notes when you talk to your lawyer, you can avoid asking the same questions (and paying for the answers!) multiple times.
- If your circumstances permit, try to communicate directly with your spouse instead of turning the job over to your lawyer. While that is sometimes impossible, doing so might save you a lot of money.
- Become your lawyer’s clerk on your own case: gather and organize promptly any necessary information or records that your lawyer needs, and discuss with him what other work you might be able to do to keep your costs down.
- Be sensible and responsible in your dealings with your spouse over time, and be sure to avoid letting your negative emotions dictate your choices; your bad behavior arms your spouse against you.
- Consider mediation, co-parental counseling, or other forms of alternative dispute resolution. Your lawyer should be able to offer you suggestions and resources.