Do you find yourself wondering if you need to be hiring a family law attorney? Maybe your spouse has hinted at divorce, or your ex is threatening to withhold the kids for summer vacation if you don’t do ______ the way they want you to. Possibly you both know a separation is coming and you just want to make sure you take the smart path forward and want to avoid common pitfalls. Or, perhaps, you are going into a second (or a first) marriage and want to have a pre-martial contract to address your concerns about specific property, inheritances, finances, etc. to ensure you are on the same page before getting married?
In any event, you’ve now decided you’d like to talk to, if not consider hiring a family law attorney. Before we talk about what you should ask the attorney – let’s talk about how you can best prepare yourself:
First, consider what your goal is for this consultation – are you looking to get some general advice (i.e., tips moving forward), or do you need a specific task done (such as drafting an agreement, representing you in court, etc.)?
Second, what is your budget – what can you spend to reach your goals – and how much do you want to spend? Or in other words, how important is it to you? If you know your budget is only $1,000, then relaying that up front might save you from spending $100 on a consultation just to be told the retainer at that specific, high end firm is $5,000+. Firms focus on different things – some are much more litigation driven (which can be appropriate for some cases) and other firms are more focused on a proactive, non-litigation approach that might include mediation, etc. Each has it’s own advantages and drawbacks, as well as costs. Some firms may also have less-experienced attorneys who can work on the case at a lower rate, saving your budget for those more truly complex situations that require experience.
Third, what is your personality style? Do you want/need frequent updates, or is it something that can be “dropped off” and “picked up”? Do you prefer email or phone? Do you prefer a more hostile approach, or a more amicable approach? Each law firm will have their own personality as well, and understanding your own needs will help you get the most out of your experience with the firm. Of course – in one case, you might need a more gentle approach, but in another, you might need a very aggressive approach. Each situation varies!
Fourth, when do you need this worked on? Is this a true emergency (i.e. risk of serious harm), a “normal case (i.e. urgent, but not an emergency), or a preventative (i.e., advice only, friendly cases where you just want to put an agreement in writing, etc.)?
Fifth, where do you need representation? If you just need advice, maybe a phone call, video chat or consultation in the attorney’s office will do. If you need full on litigation or representation in an active court, where is that located? Sometimes, having an out of town attorney (particularly when dealing with more rural areas) can be helpful, and sometimes you want somebody who knows the local judges and works in that court on a regular basis, particularly in more urban/higher volume courts.
Now that you have answered those questions and have determined:
Let’s look at good questions to ask:
While some situations are truly rare, and no two fact patterns are the same, an experienced family law attorney will have the knowledge of how the different parts of the law and especially family law work together, so even if they haven’t handled a case “exactly” like yours – odds are, they’ve seen enough similar things to have a solid plan of how to approach it.
Maybe for some people, the cost of legal fees is no big deal, but for everybody we know does have a limit! Clearly, time spent working on your case, talking to you on the phone, answering emails will be charged, but what about long distance/telephone fees, research/LexisNexis fees, postage, copies, mileage, other costs? Will you get a detailed bill or a general bill? Do they have a “minimum time increment”, or will you only be billed for actual time spent? Those little things can add up – make sure you know what you are (and are not) paying for!
Sometimes a case is fairly straight forward – such as amicable consent order for child custody and support. However, sometimes a case – particularly equitable distribution, for example, is driven by local rules and depending on the amount of marital property – may take anywhere from 3 months to 2 years. Also, sometimes your personal goal for a case may be realistic – or not – such as custody. Most judges – absent serious drug, alcohol, substantial distance between homes, etc. – will not likely order SOLE custody. You will probably have some variation of shared custody – not necessarily 50/50, mind you – just not 100% to 0%. However, your facts will be judge and case specific, so knowing possible outcomes can help you decide if this law firm is on the same page as you both financially and goal wise!
PRO TIP: Be wary of any attorney who promises you will get EVERYTHING you ask for!
Unless you’ve already agreed on everything in advance, the reality of family law is that everybody must compromise some (and if you go in front of a judge, the judge will make those compromises for you). There ARE cases where one side is very realistic – and the facts allow one side to truly get everything they ask for, particularly if the other side doesn’t show up, or has really “misbehaved”. Just be cautious – if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. Remember – you are paying for ADVICE – not for “specific answers”. One attorney can’t control what the other party/attorney/judges do. They CAN however guide you down a path that helps you best reach goals you are trying to achieve.
Will you personally be handling my case, and/or will other attorneys in your office be handling the case? Do you prefer emails or phone calls? What is an expected turn-around time on communication (i.e. how long do I need to wait to get a phone call back if I call?) What about support staff or day-to-day contact? Knowing who to call (or when to call), is important! In most firms, day to day communication will be through the attorney’s paralegal, but the office will know how to get ahold of the attorney if a truly urgent situation pops up. Does the attorney check their own email or does a staff member check them?
EVERY case has its own problems. If your potential attorney can’t share the bad news with you about your case in the first meeting (such as telling you there are no problems in your case), be concerned. Now – not all problems are serious, and almost all problems can be overcome, some easier than others. For example – uncontested absolute divorce is about as easy as it gets. However, you have to have good service, so a potential minor, but important problem would be if the other side doesn’t want to get served (by a sheriff, by certified mail, etc.). A court cannot grant a divorce if the other side hasn’t been served, so knowing what the costs would be if the other spouse doesn’t “cooperate” in getting served is good to know (before you get a bill).
Hopefully, this article will help give you practical tips for how to prepare for a consultation and some good questions to ask before you hire a lawyer. In smaller towns, you don’t have as many options, but in the Piedmont Triad and surrounding counties, there are many outstanding family law attorneys. Don’t settle for an attorney you don’t feel comfortable with – find one who understands your goals and limitations and will work with you! If you want to talk more with a family law attorney who cares, call our office and setup your consultation with Ron Payne today – not only has he been practicing for over 5 years now, but he also has been divorced and was the child of a super messy, high conflict divorce – he understands where you are coming from and has been there himself. We promise to be honest with you at all times, to do our best to reply to all messages in a reasonable time, and to work hard for you from start to finish.
Apple Payne Law, PLLC
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