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Questions to ask a divorce lawyer

4 questions to ask, and 2 to skip, before you hire a lawyer for your divorce

Written by family law attorney Jennifer Brandt

As a practicing divorce lawyer for more than 20 years, I have met with hundreds of new clients. Some are merely seeking information, others are looking to switch attorneys, and many are looking to hire someone right away.

No matter their situation, most are new to dealing with lawyers and the legal process in general. This lack of familiarity often makes people uncomfortable. Some are intimidated and fear asking a “silly” question. But remember, it is the divorce lawyer’s job to quell any fears and put the client at ease.

As a prospective client it pays to be prepared and to have a good list of questions to ask the divorce lawyer to ensure that you hire the best possible advocate to have by your side. Keep in mind that the initial consultation is a two way street. The client is wise to size up the lawyer, no matter how fabulous his or her reputation, and understand exactly what they're getting for the cost.

Questions to ask before hiring your divorce lawyer

1) Who will actually work on my case?

A lot of clients are disappointed to learn that the “star” lawyer who they met with during the initial consultation may never be seen again, as the case is shifted to another attorney on the lawyer’s team.

It is important to establish up front how the case will be staffed and whether the client will actually be working with the lawyer they want to hire.

2) How accessible is the lawyer?

Divorce and family law matters are highly emotional and clients demand a lot of attention. No one wants to be waiting days for their lawyer to return a call or answer an email, but surprisingly some lawyers are in no rush to respond to their clients.

Understanding the lawyer’s practice on returning calls and emails up front, can set your expectations appropriately.

3) How and when will billing take place?

Clients are always concerned about cost, and they should have a clear understanding of how the billing process works before they hire a lawyer. Most lawyers have the client sign an engagement letter which should contain the hourly rates for the lawyer and his or her staff who will be working on the matter. Additionally, the engagement letter should let the client know in what increments time will be billed, and if the lawyer charges for other services such as copying.

The client should also understand up front the expectation regarding payment -- when payments should be made, how often the client will be billed, and whether the bill will contain a description of services.

4) Does the lawyer have the expertise to handle the case?

Hopefully, even before the client schedules a consultation, they have researched the lawyer with whom they are planning to meet and are comfortable with the lawyer’s qualifications. For a divorce or family law matter, it is critical to choose someone with experience in the field.

If the case concerns a special problem or issue such as a complex child custody matter, you should ask the lawyer about his or her specific experience in that area.

Questions that are hard for a lawyer to answer up front

1) How long will the case take?

Clients are often in a rush to finalize their divorce, get a final support order, or determine a custody schedule. However, if the parties don't agree on issues and the case heads to court, clients must understand that, unless there is a true emergency, litigation can't really be rushed.

If a lawyer does give you an exact time in response to the question about the length of the case, the client should question how true that is, because length cannot be determined at the outset of a case.

2) How much will the case cost?

Clients often ask about the total cost of the matter. Assuming there is no flat fee arrangement (which is often disallowed), it is impossible for the lawyer to quote the exact cost of the case at the outset of the matter.

Because most lawyers bill hourly, they cannot determine what will happen in the case and how much time it will take. A lawyer can, and should, inform the client of the lawyer’s billable rate and the rate of any personnel who will work on the case. The lawyer should also explain clearly how payments will be billed and accepted. But beyond that, the lawyer cannot, and should not, quote any figures for the total cost of the case -- it is virtually impossible to determine when the case begins.

Armed with these questions to ask (and not to ask) at the initial meeting, you should feel much more comfortable in sitting down with a lawyer for a consult. Most importantly, no client should feel inhibited or fearful in front of the lawyer. If you can't freely ask questions, no matter how trivial they may seem, it's probably time to search for a new lawyer.

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