Questions You Should Ask Your Divorce Lawyer


Thanks to attorney Michael Sherman formerly of the Alabama Family Law Blog for questions to ask your divorce lawyer. I’ve added my comments in italics.

Picking the lawyer that will represent you is one of the most important decisions that you will make in your divorce case. You should try to find a lawyer who is skilled, smart, and who regularly handles family law and divorce cases. You want someone who is responsive and willing to communicate with you throughout the divorce process. Ask for recommendations from your friends, family, and coworkers, but in the end, trust your own judgment and instincts.

If you do not like the lawyer when you meet him or her, trust your instincts, you need to find someone who matches your style and needs well. You are not doing anyone any favors if you cannot stand your attorney or want their personality to be different than it already is.

Call to schedule a consultation appointment with the lawyer. This will give you an opportunity to evaluate how you are treated by the staff and will give you some time to interact with and interview the lawyer. After spending thirty minutes to one hour with the lawyer, you should have a good feel for whether he or she is the right lawyer for you. One factor that is often overlooked is whether a lawyer’s personality compliments yours. Your divorce lawyer is someone with whom you will be sharing many intimate details of your life as well confidential financial information. He or she must be someone with whom you are comfortable and whom you trust.

Many potential clients want to know if we offer a free consultation. Nope. My staff and I have no problem answering questions about my background, my philosophy, what types of cases do I handle, etc. but a “meet and greet” type meeting always turns into “my situation is this? what should I do?” I need the time to sit down with a potential client and talk about their case. My time and the potential client’s time is valuable.

During the initial consultation with the potential lawyer, you may consider asking her the following questions:

Do you specialize in family law? If you needed back surgery, would you go to a general practitioner? Likewise, there are many lawyers who are general practitioners that will handle a divorce case. In addition, they take business matters, bankruptcies, criminal cases, etc. That is not the type of lawyer you want handling your divorce case. Ask them what percentage of their practice is divorce and family law matters. If it is not at least 50%-75% of their practice, go elsewhere.

I agree with this. Family law is such a weird and complicated type of law. I do not believe that clients serve themselves well to go to an attorney who is a generalist rather than someone who primarily handles family law cases.

What would be the fee arrangement for you to handle my divorce case? Divorce lawyers normally set fees in one of two ways: they either charge a fixed fee for the entire case, or they charge a retainer against which they bill an hourly fee. Make sure you completely understand how you will be billed. A good lawyer will want to make sure that you completely understand and are comfortable with the fee arrangement. If you have any questions, ask.

Do not forget to ask what happens if you have a problem or question about your bill? Do you get billed for that too?

What other costs can I expect? In addition to lawyer’s fees, there are other costs that are typically associated with your divorce case such as court costs, subpoenas, and sometimes such things as private investigator fees, depositions, etc. Ask the lawyer what types of costs are likely to be involved in your case and how much you can expect to pay for them.

Understand the typical filing fees, how much a transcript of a Hearing might cost and how much a typical process server costs.

Will you send me monthly itemized bills showing the time that you spent on my case and the expenses incurred? If you are being charged by the hour, the lawyer should systematically keep you updated with regard to your trust account balance. If you ever have a question about a charge on your bill, talk to the lawyer about it. Address it sooner rather than later.

Your attorney should be sending you bills each and every month. You should also understand what the bill says. We have gone through two software programs trying to get a billing system that works well.

Do you have any resources that you can make available to me to help me reduce the pain and expense of divorce? Obviously, going through a divorce can be a very traumatic experience. A lawyer that is willing to educate you about the process and the law affecting your case will help remove some of the concerns that you may have.

What websites, brochures, or Court forms can you look at or use to reduce your fees?

Who else will be working on my case? Other lawyers, paralegals, and/or staff members will often perform work on your case. You want to be sure that the others work on your case are also competent and experienced. Also, find out at what hourly rate you will be charged for their working on your case, if at all. The hourly rate for less experienced attorneys and/or paralegals should be lower than that of the primary attorney on the case.

I try to introduce clients to my paralegal and our receptionist so they know who they are talking to.

What efforts will you make to try to settle my case? The vast majority of divorce cases settle. Some are settled before they ever get to the lawyer (that is to say that the parties have already reached an agreement and the divorce lawyer is only needed to draft the paperwork). Others settle on the day of the trial, in a room outside the courtroom, and still others settle at any stage in between. You want a lawyer who is willing to communicate with your spouse and/or your spouse’s lawyer (if he or she has one), to try to settle the case. Many lawyers will not make a deliberate effort to settle your case, but rather will prepare the matter for trial and only settle it if the other side takes the initiative or if it happens to settle on the day of court. This type of lawyer can cost you thousands of dollars in unnecessary legal fees. Additionally, you should ask what the lawyer thinks about mediation. Mediation is becoming more prevalent in divorce cases. If you think that it may be helpful in your case, you should ask the lawyer to explain the costs and benefits associated with mediation.

Make sure that you talk to your attorney about what settlement measures you are interested in and what they suggest.

What I can do to keep my costs down? By taking an active roll in your case, there are certain fact gathering steps that will reduce your legal fees. If a lawyer is charging you by the hour, you may be better off gathering many of the financial documents and other information rather than relying on the lawyer’s office to do it.

I wish that clients would do this more. It is so cost inefficient for my staff and I to be running around the city trying to get documents when the client can arrange to order the documents or gather them.

Do you survey your clients to measure their satisfaction? You should not let a negative answer to this question preclude your allowing the lawyer to represent you. Because so few lawyers actually do survey their clients, there are many very good competent lawyers who do not do this. However, all other factors being equal, a lawyer that surveys their clients to determine their satisfaction, is likely to render better service to their clients as they are more at tuned to their feedback.

Any business will tell you that surveying customers can be revealing and sometimes not pretty.  We have surveyed our clients regarding their satisfaction with our office and our services.  We got positive feedback but we have made some small tweaks based upon recommendations from clients.

As you ask the above questions and make a decision about hiring a lawyer, keep in mind that you have a right to expect your lawyer to do the following:

  • Explain the legal issues involved in your case and the possible outcomes under your fact situation.
  • Clearly explain their billing arrangement.
  • Copy you with all documents related to your case.
  • Provide you with accurate bills on a periodic basis.
  • Return your phone calls within a reasonable period of time (usually 24-48 hours) (the lawyer may be involved in a trial and be in Court for several days, but he or she should at least make arrangements to have someone from the office call you if they are unavailable).
  • Make efforts to settle your case on terms that are fair to you and once it is determined that the case will not settle, competently and vigorously prepare your case and you for trial.

Once you have found a good lawyer, remember that the lawyer works for you.  Do not be intimidated by them.  Do not hand over control of your case without question. The lawyer should be willing to explain the decisions that need to be made during the process of your divorce as well as their recommendations. However, in the end, you are the one who makes the decisions. Ultimately, if you are not satisfied with the lawyer, remember that you have the absolute right to terminate your relationship with the lawyer at any time, for any reason. Be careful in doing so, however, if you have a Court date looming. This can cause unnecessary delays or, worse, result in you having to proceed without proper representation.

It is true that terminating a relationship with your lawyer just before a big trial or Hearing can seriously jeopardize your case.  If you have concerns, talk to your lawyer about them or if you feel like you cannot — maybe you should look for a new lawyer –just not right before a big trial or Hearing.