How to be prepared to visit your attorney

Recently, a close relative asked me my advice on how to deal with getting, and keeping, an attorney. Having worked with several over the course of his legal matter, he had not made any serious progress.  Then, one day, this relative found out that the attorney he had been working with had left the firm and was no longer handling his case.

“What do I do?” He had questions about fees (would he have to pay for another attorney at the firm to get brought up to speed on the case?), about who was actually handing the case (he was more likely to reach a paralegal when he called the firm than the attorney), what questions should he be asking, when should he expect a resolution, and so on. Because my area of practice does not include family law, I could only vaguely answer his questions.  Since, I’ve looked into how to prepare to visit an attorney on a family law matter(divorce, adoptions, custody, etc), and following some of the tips recommended by the Woods, May, & Matlock blog would be helpful.

  1. Ask In Advance – When setting up your first meeting with an attorney, ask what information you should bring with you.  Most attorneys’ offices are like a doctor’s office and there are many forms to fill out.  Get a copy ahead of time and bring them to the meeting all filled in.  If possible, throughout your divorce you should try to provide as much helpful information to your attorney as possible.  This insures that you and your attorney are not spending time and money duplicating efforts.  Of course if you need clarification about how much information you should include, ask.
  2. Fee Agreement – You will be given a fee or retainer fee agreement form to sign.  It is a contract with your attorney stating that you want the lawyer to represent you and in return you intend to pay him/her a fee.  Read this document thoroughly and make sure that you understand the contents before signing.
  3. Goals – You and your attorney should fully discuss your particular situation.  Based on your goals and objectives you should jointly decide the best course of action.
  4. Information – You will be asked to provide financial and personal information, so be ready to go through mountains of paperwork.  Among other things, your attorney will most likely ask for tax returns, financial statements (including checking, savings, credit cards, etc), and a monthly budget.  Compile as many of these documents as soon as possible.
  5. Paralegal – Many attorneys have legal assistants or paralegals.  It is a good idea for you to meet and get to know your attorney’s paralegal.  He/she may be able to answer many of your questions at a lower hourly rate than your attorney.  However, you must remember that these individuals have many other duties as well, so calling multiple times a day is a poor use of your time and theirs.  (And it’s a good way to guarantee that your calls will be sent directly to voicemail.)
  6. Notes – If you are meeting, or even just planning on calling your attorney, write out all of your questions ahead of time.  This way you are sure to get them all answered.  Make note of what those answers were, this will save you from asking the same question numerous times.
  7. Bills – If you have a billing question call the individual who handles the bills and ask them, most likely this will not be your attorney.
  8. Copies – You will save your attorney some time and yourself some money if you can provide several copies of the documents requested of you.  (See #4)  Ask your attorney how many copies he/she will be needing, they probably don’t need 8, but 2 or 3 extra copies would almost certainly be appreciated.
  9. Questions – If, at any point during your divorce, you are confused about something, ask your attorney or his/her paralegal to clarify.  They are happy to discuss terms, agreements, etc. with you.  However, as stated in #5 & 6, prepare your questions ahead of time and take notes so that you’re not calling multiple times or asking the same question over and over.
  10. Keeping Up To Date – Throughout your divorce you should be receiving copies of almost everything that comes into and goes out of your attorney’s office pertaining to your divorce.  This should help keep you up to date on the status of your case and minimize the number of “I was just wondering how my case was going” calls.  Those “just checking” calls can add up quickly and make for a very expensive divorce.
  11. Not All Advice is Good Advice – Your attorney has gone to school, trained, studied, and practiced law.  Unless your friends and family are divorce attorneys themselves, listen to your attorney.  While your friends and family have your best interest at heart, they do not generally have the legal knowledge that your attorney has.  Your attorney wants to help you achieve all of your goals and objectives within the limits of the law and what will be best for you and your family in the long run.  If there is an issue that you feel is not being addressed and you have tried to talk to your attorney about it, then get a second opinion, from a trained legal professional.
  12. Patience – Divorces take time, even amicable ones.  To a great extent neither you nor your attorney have control over the scheduling of your divorce.  There are basic timelines dictated by the law, judges generally set aside specific times for hearings, coordinating multiple schedules is always tricky, and there are inevitable surprises along the way.  Be patient, it will all end soon.
  13. Talk It Out – You have hired your attorney to achieve your goals and objectives.  If you feel that your attorney is not handling your case in the way that you would like, talk to him/her about it.  Your attorney should be willing to adjust the approach to your divorce to accomplish your desired outcome.  Or they may recommend another attorney who is better suited to your needs.  However, your attorney is not practicing law just for the love of it.  They are providing you a service and expect to be compensated for their time and effort.  If you are unwilling to pay don’t be surprised your attorney is unwilling to jump through hoops.
  14. Warning – If any attorney promises you anything other than to do their very best for you, find a new one.
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