In Part I of this article, I discussed some questions to ask a lawyer at an initial consultation. Those questions related to the law and how it applies to the facts of your case.
This second part of the article deals with the other questions to be asked. Those questions relate to the lawyer’s credentials and the kind of attorney/client relationship you can expect to have with the lawyer.
Specifically, you want to find out the following:
- The lawyer’s experience in the area of family law
- Whether and how support staff and other lawyers may be involved in your case
- The lawyer’s billing practices
- Specifics of how the attorney/client relationship would work
1. Experience in family law
You want a lawyer who has devoted at least 50% of his/her practice to family law, for not less than 5 years. It’s not necessary that the lawyer handle only family matters. In fact, an attorney with a more varied background may be better equipped to deal with estate, property or bankruptcy issues that might arise.
Also important is the kind of family law experience a lawyer has. The great majority of divorce cases are settled without need for a trial. Thus, you want an experienced negotiator. But at least in traditional “court-based” cases, you also need an experienced trial lawyer. That’s because even in cases that ultimately settle, there can be contested hearings on matters such as temporary support or custody, or depositions. These proceedings require litigation skills.
Finally, distinguish between “experience” and “credentials.” Diplomas from top law schools are impressive. I know this because some of my friends have them hanging in their offices, and it impresses me. But diplomas don’t guarantee a quality lawyer. Some of the finest lawyers I know went to law schools you never heard of. And the longer a lawyer has been out of law school, the less relevant that school is. Sound judgment and problem-solving skills result more from experience than legal pedigree.
2. Whether and how support staff and other lawyers may be involved in your case
If you decide to hire a member of a firm, you want that lawyer—not a partner or associate attorney—to handle the significant aspects of your case such as contested hearings and settlement negotiation. If a lawyer seems hesitant to make such a commitment, find another one who feels your case is important enough to remain personally involved with it.
Law firms usually have ample support staff, but not always. Ask about the availability and experience of associate attorneys, paralegals and legal assistants who may work on your case, and what exactly they will be doing.
If you hire a sole practitioner, the quality and role of support staff become even more important. You want your solo attorney to have experienced staff capable of answering your questions and handling routine matters that arise when the attorney is unavailable. Legal secretaries and paralegals, however, should not be making decisions regarding your case, so discuss with the lawyer how all that will work. While you’re at it, make sure that you won’t be billed for secretarial/clerical tasks such as scheduling, photocopying, and responding to billing inquiries.
3. The lawyer’s billing practices
Make sure you receive a letter that clearly states the details of your fee agreement before you pay your retainer.
Read the agreement carefully and be sure you understand it. Your lawyer won’t be shy about billing you under the agreement, so don’t be shy about asking about it.
One key but frequently overlooked aspect of billing is the “billing increment.” Many lawyers bill in increments of 1/10 of an hour, which means that the smallest amount for which you will be billed is six minutes worth—even for a 3-minute phone call. (This is a good reason, by the way, to wait to call your lawyer until you have more than just one question to ask.)
However, some lawyers charge a minimum of 2/10 of an hour or even a quarter of an hour for each service rendered. That can make a big difference. For example, a 3-minute phone call to a $450/hr. lawyer who charges in increments of .1 hours will cost you $45.00. The same call to a $350/hr. lawyer who charges you .2 hours will cost you $70.00!
Finally, make sure that the fee agreement provides that any unused portion of your initial or subsequent retainers will be returned to you.
4. How will the attorney/client relationship work?
I hate it when people don’t respond to my calls, emails, texts or my hollering outside their office building after they haven’t responded to one of my more traditional attempts to contact them.
Some lawyers are notorious for not responding to their clients. Ask how quickly the lawyer will get back to you. If the response time exceeds 24 hours, consider going elsewhere. There’s no sense retaining a lawyer who you already know is gong to drive you nuts.
Also, find out on what tasks you might save money by doing them yourself. Tell the lawyer that you would like to do some things that you might otherwise have to pay for, like scanning and organizing documents.
Finally, ask how decisions will be made in your case. Generally, clients set goals and attorneys decide how to achieve them. To the extent you can identify your goals at this early stage, ask the lawyer to comment on them. Reach an understanding that the two of you will agree upon a (written) list of goals before settlement negotiation begins.
Listen not only to the responses the lawyer gives, but also to the tone of them. As mentioned in Part 1 of this article, try to get a read on the lawyer’s “emotional intelligence,” which includes qualities like empathy and perspective.
A good working relationship with a lawyer requires mutual respect. Find out before you sign up if such a relationship is in the cards.
Learn more about how to maximize results and minimize costs
in Larry Sarezky’s new book Divorce, Simply Stated