Five Questions You Must Ask Your Potential Divorce Attorney (And Why)
Most clients meet with an attorney to discuss their rights and issues relating to a possible divorce. The client will usually explain his or her situation and ask questions about what is likely to happen. However, the client usually does not ask a lot of questions about the attorney herself, relying instead on the positive recommendation of the referral source, online reviews, or websites. While having a good referral from a trusted friend or advisor is great, clients need to assess for themselves whether the particular attorney is the right fit for him or her. An attorney with great credentials but an ill-running or understaffed firm might not be able to handle your matter with the level of attention you require or expect.
To ensure that you pick the right attorney for your needs, you should always ask the following questions:
1. Is divorce your exclusive practice area? If not, what percentage of your cases are divorce cases? Do you hold any other positions outside of your firm?
Simply stated, you want an attorney who dedicates at least 90% of his or her time to divorce. It may seem cliché, but if you needed open heart surgery, would you hire a doctor who spends 50% of his or her time doing foot surgery?
You also want to know if your attorney holds positions (whether paid or unpaid) outside of his or her office because that outside position may impact your attorney’s availability to you and your case. Perhaps your very qualified attorney spends a great deal of time lecturing or teaching, which requires lots of time preparing and presenting. While such activities may be admirable, or even helpful, to his or her skillset, such obligations usually take time away from the office and cases.
2. Who is your support staff and how long have they worked for you?
Support staff is an integral and important part of an office in any area of work, but in divorce matters, it is particularly so because you will be interacting a lot with front-line members of the firm’s team. You want to explore who these members are, and what they will be doing on your case. How long someone has worked for an individual usually says a lot about the culture of the office and the attorney. Some questions you should ask are: Does the firm’s team have long-term experience? Does the firm work cohesively? Are the individuals familiar with the attorney’s style, calendar, and practices? You want to make sure that the attorney's team is well-oiled machine and that you are comfortable working with this team. Don't be afraid to ask if you can meet the support staff and attorneys that would be working with you.
3. How many complex cases does each attorney handle at any given time?
While it is true that some attorneys have the capacity to handle more cases than others, in my experience, one attorney should be handling no more than 15-20 active, complex cases. Therefore, if a firm has two attorneys and is handling 80 cases, that should raise some red flags. Complex divorces are work-intensive; they require a great amount of time, attention to detail, deadlines, and document preparation and review. You want to be sure that the attorney you hire has the time to do the work necessary for your case. Further, going back to question two, the amount of support staff an attorney has should somewhat match his or her caseload. The support staff can become overwhelmed by a caseload just like an attorney can. You want to make sure that not only the attorney has time for you and your needs, but that the firm does.
4. How many trials have you had in the last year?
While the ability to take a case to trial is essential in any divorce case, the attorney who settles cases more often is likely the one who will have more time for your case, rather than the one who is on trial all the time. You want to be sure that your attorney can and has conducted multiple trials over the course of his or her career, but you should be cautious if your attorney has been on trial six times in the last year. Trial work is extremely time consuming and demanding of an attorney’s time, and when the attorney is on trial, he or she will be out of the office for 6-8 hours per day, spending that time exclusively working on someone else’s case. In addition, there is a lot of time spent on preparation, which means that after leaving the courtroom, that attorney is likely to return to the office to review what transpired during the day and prepare for the next day. Therefore, you want to make sure the attorney has a caseload that will allow him or her to evenly distribute his or her attention to every client; you don't want to fall to the bottom of the caseload.
5. What is your policy on returning calls or responding to emails?
It is perfectly fair and reasonable to expect a return phone call or email response to a non-urgent matter within 24-48 hours. However, if you feel that you need a faster response, you should express that to your attorney at the consultation, so that the two of you can have a mutual understanding and expectation. You should be open about the type of service you expect from a firm, so that the attorney can let you know what his or her normal routines are and tell you whether or not he or she can meet your expectations.