By Carolyn Daly, Esq. | Daly & Associates | AAML NJ 2022 - 2023 President
You have made the decision to seek a divorce, or to at least get advice about getting a divorce. You have the names for potential lawyers, but what do you ask them?
There are certainly more than six questions that you will want to ask, but these are a good start to help you in making a decision.
1. Do you specialize in divorce cases and what credentials do you hold?
When getting divorced, you want someone who has a lot of experience and hopefully specializes in divorce, particularly if you have complex custody or financial issues. You don’t want someone who is practicing in several different areas of law as they likely lack the depth of knowledge needed to handle your issues.
You also want someone who understands divorce is emotional so that they will work with you on emotional issues. They can also probably understand the emotions occurring on the other side of the case to navigate how issues are approached with them.
2. How will my case be handled in the office?
In some offices, one lawyer will be the only one working on your case. However, in most offices multiple attorneys and other legal staff (e.g. paralegals) will also work on the case. You want to be comfortable with your legal team and know who is working for you. Will the lawyer you consult with be at all court appearances? Is someone else going to handle scheduling or day-to-day questions so that you aren’t billed at the highest rate? Who will be drafting and reviewing documents? You will want to understand how the office works and, if you want the lawyer you are consulting with to be the only one appearing in court, you need to say that in the consult.
3. How do I communicate with the office and receive information on my case?
If you retain a smaller law firm, it may be that the lawyer or one secretary is handling all communications. In other firms, there may be specific communication guidelines – you may not be able to simply “walk in” to meet your attorney, but will need to schedule an appointment, or you may need to work with a paralegal or associate to try to resolve minor issues in your case. You will want to know who you can and should e-mail, text (unlikely), have a phone call with or come in person for a meeting. You also need to remember your attorney is handling other cases, so you should know the protocol for how quickly communications are answered. Having good communication with your lawyer will keep you de-stressed and will also help you clarify and define your goals with your lawyer.
4. How long does it take to get divorced and are there alternatives that might save time and money?
Most people ask this question multiple times during their case, but it is very hard to answer, especially post-COVID with the very significant shortage of judges that we currently have.
While the court’s “goal” is to have your divorce complete (including any trial, if necessary) within a year, that is definitely not the norm at present. In most counties, trials take well over two years, and some trials are paused completely. Knowing that, you will want to ask about what alternatives there are that might assist in getting the case, or certain issues, resolved sooner, such as mediation, collaborative divorce and arbitration to name a few. Find out all your options.
5. What is your retainer amount, the hourly rates for people working on my file, billing cycle and what happens when my retainer is exhausted?
Divorce can be very expensive so you want to understand what you need to pay to get started. And the “cheapest” lawyer may not be the best choice. You also need to know what each person working on your file charges per hour so that you can try to decide who you may need to speak to, or work with, at different stages of the case. You also want to know how often you will get bills so that you can keep track of your retainer and charges. Finally, you want to know what you will have to pay when the retainer runs out so that you can plan ahead.
6. Now that we have talked a little about my case, how would you approach it?
This person is going to be representing you and working with you to get you what you hope to achieve in the case. So, you want to know that the way they would approach your case, or certain issues aligns with your goals and approach. You may want a very aggressive lawyer, or one who takes the high road, or one who can be either, when necessary. You may be willing to compromise on certain issues to achieve favorable results in others and you will want to know if the lawyer would agree to approach it the way you do, or, if not, why not? You want to gain some insight into the lawyer and what it will be like working with them so that you can decide if that is a person you want to work with for the next year or more.
There is no right answer to any of these questions, but hopefully the answers help you make a decision on the lawyer you want to represent you as you navigate the difficult, often emotional issues in divorce. And it is why you should always consult with a lawyer before retaining them.