For most people, divorce is unfamiliar territory they never wanted to explore. There is an understandable temptation to find an experienced tour guide—a divorce lawyer—and let them chart your path. After all, they know the lay of the land, right? While it's true that your divorce lawyer has probably handled dozens, if not hundreds of divorces, and can guide you capably, he or she may not tell you everything that could make your journey easier.
At Barton Wood, we know that an informed client is usually a happier client (and easier to help). So we'd like to share some things that many divorce lawyers may not tell you.
When lawyers offer a consultation, they usually hope that the person they are meeting with will retain them. From a financial standpoint, it is obviously desirable for the prospective client to write that retainer check before leaving the office. Otherwise they might leave, find another lawyer, or change their mind about divorce altogether.
A good divorce lawyer will not pressure you to sign a retainer agreement before you're ready. He or she will often encourage you to interview at least a few other attorneys. Why? Well, first of all, an experienced divorce attorney knows that there is a personal component to this professional relationship, and you need to have a lawyer you trust and whose approach you are on board with. Interviewing a few lawyers helps ensure you will find one with whom you feel comfortable. Another reason experienced divorce attorneys don't mind if you shop around is that they are confident in their own skills, and don’t take it personally if you don’t hire them. They know someone else will.
One possible exception to the recommendation to shop around: if you’ve been served with divorce papers and have only a limited amount of time to answer them. If you really need an attorney’s help, you may want to hire the lawyer you’re meeting with (as long as they’re competent) and not risk missing a critical filing deadline.
That brings us to our second point: you can change attorneys if you need to. It is an inconvenience, and shouldn’t be done lightly. But if, for some reason, the attorney you retained is no longer meeting your needs, you can terminate the relationship, get a copy of your file, and ask another divorce attorney to take over.
For this reason, you should read your retainer agreement carefully before you sign, to make sure you will get back any part of the retainer that your first attorney has not earned. You will also want to make sure that you are not close to a court-ordered deadline that might leave you scrambling to find a new attorney in time.
Don’t be embarrassed to ask your attorney, “What can I do to keep my attorney fees down?” Any attorney worth his or her salt will happily advise you on this score. Attorneys will, of course, bill you for the work they do on your behalf. But there are things that you can do that reduce both your lawyer’s workload and your bill, and you won’t know what they are until you ask. Common examples are communicating via email rather than phone, or gathering financial documents at the outset of the case so that the discovery process isn’t as time-consuming.
One reason you should definitely ask your attorney about keeping your fees as low as possible is that they are likely to be higher than you expected, even so. It can feel embarrassing to admit to your lawyer that you are worried about money, but don’t be shy: not only has your attorney heard it before, almost every client who walks through that attorney’s door is worried about money. Divorce is expensive to start with, and you are now faced with the prospect of managing the expenses of a whole household, while losing a spouse’s income or services.
Your attorney wants to help you keep your costs down, but he or she may not tell you what divorce can cost. It is hard to predict exactly how a case will go and thus, what it will cost. But your lawyer can at least tell you his or her hourly rate, the court costs you can expect, and, in the lawyer’s experience, what a case like yours could end up costing. Just remember that’s not a guarantee.
You want an attorney who’s willing (and able) to fight for you, of course. But remember that lawyers are called “attorney and counselor at law” for a reason. That counseling is valuable. You might walk into your attorney’s office seeking to make your spouse’s life miserable with a brutal court battle, and your attorney might oblige. But what he or she won’t tell you is that drawn-out court proceedings drive your costs up quickly, destroy co-parenting relationships, and often don’t bring satisfaction in the end.
What you want is an attorney who will ask you about your goals, explore options with you, discuss likely outcomes, and give you straightforward advice—even if that advice involves uncomfortable truths. In the end, you still get to make the decisions in your divorce case: what to ask for, whether to settle, and how. But part of the reason you are paying your attorney is for their experience and advice. Make sure you take advantage of it.
If you have questions about divorce or other family law matters, we invite you to contact Barton Wood to schedule a consultation.