It is 2019 and with the New Year many people contemplate divorce. When you are in the exploratory stage, it is important to gather information and carefully consider whether to proceed. This often leads people to contact divorce attorneys for purely preliminary consultations. This is usually a good idea, especially if you have specific questions about the law or the legal process of divorce. In complete confidence, you can discuss your situation, your options, and the potential legal implications. But divorce can be overwhelming and it can be difficult to know what questions to ask a divorce attorney to make the most of a consultation.
Most law firms offer a free consultation, though many arbitrarily limit consultations to thirty minutes or less. Even if you are well-prepared, this can make it difficult to adequately discuss the nuances and intricacies of your case. No two cases are identical, so the specific details always are important and often are outcome-determinative. Humble brag here, but we do not limit the length of our initial consultations. The goal is to give you all of the information you need to make an informed decision. Our attorneys cannot necessarily do that if we are rigidly watching a clock.
Below are some helpful questions to ask divorce attorneys during an initial consultation. This is by no means a comprehensive list, but more of an outline of potential topics you probably should discuss with any attorney you contact.
• What should you expect in your case?
Most important to any decision are the potential outcomes. This is especially true in legal proceedings. Although no divorce attorney can guarantee a specific outcome, experienced attorneys can explain the possible and likely outcomes based on the facts of your case. Unfortunately, many attorneys deliberately withhold the “bad” information to imply only positive results and promote themselves. This is a tremendous disservice to the potential client. You want a divorce attorney who is transparent and honest with you at all times, even when the information to be delivered is adverse.
• What is the attorney’s biggest concern in your case?
This is a great follow up question because it forces the attorney to give you some measure of honesty. If the attorney answers incompletely or evasively, he or she is probably more concerned with the sales pitch than the accuracy of the information he or she provides. Even in “great” cases, there are very real risks and possible adverse consequences. You should be fully informed about these before you decide to hire a particular divorce attorney.
• How many cases has the attorney handled?
Attorneys typically convey their experience in the number of years they have been licensed. But this tells you almost nothing about the attorney’s experience or the quality of that experience. Ask the attorney how many cases he or she has handled instead. A divorce attorney who has actively litigated hundreds to thousands of cases is obviously more experienced than one who has litigated only a few despite being licensed longer. An older attorney actually may use less technology, which could make your attorney’s fees more expensive. Older attorneys also may be further removed from important changes to Arizona law. This is not ageist or meant to imply that older attorneys are inferior, only that age is not a proxy for experience.
• What percentage of the attorney’s cases go to trial?
This is a natural follow up to the previous question. Statistically, most divorces settle before trial. While trial experience is very important, it can be detrimental if a particular divorce attorney goes to trial radically more often than average. This can imply that the attorney assumes unreasonable positions that expose his or her clients to sanctions, including being ordered to pay the opposing party’s attorney’s fees. It also might mean that the attorney misleads his or her clients to expect unrealistic results. But conversely, it could mean that the attorney is known for his or her litigation aptitude and is sought out by clients who expect their case will require a trial. Just talk about this with the attorneys you interview.
• What is the law firm’s policies for returning messages?
While many attorneys do not act like it, the legal profession remains a service industry. Divorce is stressful enough without not knowing when or even if your attorney will return your call or e-mail. Worse yet, many law firms employ policies that enable them to bill 1.5 – 2x for work “performed” outside of normal business hours. Intuitively, your questions and issues during a divorce will not always be conveniently confined to ordinary business hours. Do you really want to wait several days for a response from your attorney or pay twice as much for an immediate answer?
Second to the results we obtain, our customer service policies are our proudest distinction from other law firms. Our clients receive responses immediately, even during evenings and weekends. Consider a recent review where a client wrote, “[w]hen I am nervous to write them at 11pm they are actually writing me at 1130pm to see how things are going.” Our firm is uncompromising in its policy to deliver superlative responsiveness and customer service. All of our clients have direct, around-the-clock access to their attorneys. We also invite our clients to contact us by text message because it is often more convenient and immediate. Discuss the law firm’s communication policies before you hire a divorce attorney.
• Ask for a writing sample
One of the most overlooked but important attributes for a great divorce attorney is the quality of his or her writing. So many of the issues in a divorce are discretionary, meaning the effectiveness of your attorney—particularly written argument—is crucial to the outcome of your case. The attorney’s writing sample should be professional, authoritative, and persuasive. If you are not immediately “wowed,” you probably should contact a different attorney.
• How much will the case cost?
This is one of the most important questions, yet it is one that most divorce attorneys will go out of their way not to answer. If the attorney tells you anything like, “it is impossible to guess how much your divorce will cost,” it should be an immediate red flag. Even traditional attorneys who bill hourly usually have a reasonably accurate approximation of how much time your case will require and, thus, how much it will cost. Many of those attorneys still will not answer your question. Referring again to prevailing statistics, the “average” divorce is believed to cost each party more than $20,000. More bad news: most cases are more complex than what would be considered “average.” That is because the data is distorted by uncontested or exceedingly amicable divorces that require very little attorney time. What our attorneys would consider an average case typically would cost the client more than $20,000 in attorney’s fees using the billing practices at traditional law firms. Our internal statistics are vastly more affordable and, unlike other law firms, we provide a fee quote during every initial consultation so that you will know how much the case will cost in the worst-case scenario.
• Ask to review the fee agreement before you sign
Specific billing policies vary considerably by law firm, even among law firms that offer flat fees. Some law firms impose steep “minimum billable increments” for each task. An example of this is a divorce attorney in Scottsdale who charges the client a minimum of 0.3 hours for each e-mail or telephone call. This means a client should expect to pay at least $120 for every e-mail the attorney receives. There really is no other word to describe this except outrageous.
As mentioned earlier, another law firm downtown charges up to 2x its normal billable rates for work performed outside of business hours. Many law firms charge late fees and/or interest on unpaid invoices. Some even may require the client to maintain a constant trust balance above $10,000.
Carefully read the fee agreement to review all billing policies. Otherwise you may get partially into your case and find yourself unrepresented when your attorney withdraws because you cannot afford the mandatory replenishment. Then if you try to hire a replacement attorney, you likely will be billed a second time to review the work performed by the first attorney.
• Ask what you can do to prepare for the case or to make it less expensive
A good divorce attorney will offer steps for you to make your case more efficient and, as a result, less expensive. A simple example is providing instructions for how to organize evidence into a format presentable at trial. Most clients can capably do this themselves to avoid expensive paralegal and support staff charges. Another way you can reduce your fees is to consolidate your attorney-client communications as much as possible. For non-emergency questions, you may want to wait until you have a few questions to ask at the same time, rather than asking separately and incurring separate charges.