What To Ask A Divorce Lawyer On Your First Visit

Questions to Ask to Your Divorce Lawyer
Erin Levine

By Erin Levine | Apr 27th, 2020

If you’ve made up your mind and there’s no alternative but divorce, talking to at least a few lawyers is always a good idea. The first consultation is usually always free, so you’ve got nothing to lose. But, you can gain a lot of information during attorney interviews if you head into the conversation armed with the right questions.

First, ask yourself: Are you sure you actually need an attorney?

As a divorce attorney for the last 14 years, I can attest to how helpful and comforting it can be to have a lawyer at your side who can guide you and advocate on your behalf. But, we lawyers aren’t cheap. In California, where I practice, divorce with an attorney on retainer can cost each individual up to $25,000. Which I think is an insane amount of money, and which is why I created Hello Divorce, a platform that gives smart, savvy individuals like you a breakdown of the divorce process, step-by-step, with links and checklists for all the forms you need to complete, at which step of the process. At Hello Divorce, you can get all of this info for free through our Divorce Navigator, and if you want a little extra help along the way from an experienced attorney, at a transparent, flat-rate fee, you can get that, too.

Most states allow individuals to represent themselves in the divorce process. And, it’s more common than you think: 80 percent of divorces involve at least one party representing themselves. Lots of people go this route – which means you can, too. This Hello Divorce article might help you decide whether self-representation is the right option for you: Do I need an attorney?

1. Ask them to describe their approach to the divorce process.

Each lawyer you speak to should have a slightly different answer to this. Sure, the divorce process is the same, in terms of paperwork, but your lawyer’s approach will differ. This open-ended question will give you some insight into the strategies they might employ to get you to the finish line. Some lawyers run to court for every little thing in a divorce. If that does/doesn’t feel right to you, ask how often they typically find themselves in court during the divorce process. Are you anticipating a heated child custody battle, a big argument over property, or something else? Ask your lawyer how they’ve helped clients reach an acceptable outcome when they’ve worked in similar situations in the past. This article, This is why you need a strategy for your divorce, might also help prepare you for this conversation.

2. Ask about communication. How will they check in with you throughout the process?

As you’re interviewing legal help, the only way you’ll know how frequently you’ll connect with your representation, and via what medium, is if you ask. If you’re an e-mail junkie and detest interaction by phone (or vice versa) make that clear. If you want regular face-to-face meetings to discuss your case, a video conference or messaging through a platform that is extra secure, make that clear. Lay out your expectations for communication up front. Remember: this is your divorce. You get to be picky about who helps you through it and how often you check-in with your legal help.

Quick tip: Find out if your lawyer has staff (preferably a trained paralegal). You can cut down significantly on fees by forming a relationship with team members who bill at a lower hourly rate.

3. Ask how you’ll be able to monitor the status of your case.

Many lawyers are incorporating technology into their practices – which is a good thing for you. It keeps the process more transparent, letting you follow along at each step. As you interview attorneys, ask if their office uses technology like Clio, MyCase, or other case management software that you can also use to message your attorney, review your filed documents and track the status of your case. (And if you’re a big fan of tech like me, you might want to check out these 10+ (non legal) essential apps to rely on while uncoupling.)

4. After you lay out your case, ask where they see things potentially going off track.

This is a good chance to get help thinking ten steps ahead. After you’ve laid out the path that led you to pursue divorce and shared the outcome you’re hoping to achieve after your divorce is final, ask the lawyer where they’ve seen things going off the rails in similar cases they’ve worked on. What red flags did your story raise for them? What questions is the lawyer asking you about your situation? This question is your chance to 1) make sure they’ve been hearing you and 2) get insights that could help keep your divorce process moving along without surprises.

5. Talk about payment.

This question is especially important if you’re concerned about your financial situation. It will be helpful to know whether there are options, such as monthly payments or one payment up front and at the end. If you’re not sure you can afford the lawyer you like, ask about their process of helping clients pay divorce lawyer fees out of the marital estate, rather than just out of your pocket. A lawyer who wants to work with you will help you find a way to afford their services and might offer options – like working more closely with a paralegal during the bulk of the process – to help you keep costs down. You can also download my 10 tips to make your divorce easier and less costly before you go, for a little inspiration.

Taking all of this into account, I want you to remember one thing: this is your divorce. You get to choose who helps you through it. That’s why I highly recommend interviewing at least 2-3 attorneys before selecting one. Don’t let anyone pressure you into working with them, either. This process is going to get harder before it gets easier, so it’s important that the lawyer by your side – the lawyer who is going to be learning a lot about the inner workings of your marriage, your finances, and more – is someone that you trust, respect, and actually like.

A List of What To Bring With You To Your First Consultation with A Divorce Attorney

From Christy A. Zlatkus and Dr. Elizabeth Degi Dubois, of Z Family Law

Your Goal (If You Have One)

For many women, the ‘goal’ of hiring an attorney may simply be “get me outta this marriage!” But honing in on what you want your life to look like after the divorce dust has settled can be a useful tool for identifying how you want to work through the process of ending your marriage. 

Depending on your circumstances, your goals may be big safety factors. For instance, if you’re going to have to co-parent with an ex whose drinking contributed to the end of your marriage, you may want a provision limiting your ex’s driving while he has custody incorporated into your divorce decree. But most clients’ goals often have more to do with long-term financial and emotional stability. If you spent a decade of your career helping your partner build a successful business, walking away with a cut of the equity should be on the table. For Elizabeth, timeline surpassed all else; her overarching goal was to get through the legalities before her then-toddler could develop long-term memories of the split. Having this goal in mind helped keep things moving, and as a result, her divorce took 364 days between her initial filing and final judgment. 

Think about what’s most important to you, financially, logistically, and emotionally. Jot your thoughts down on paper and roll up to your prospective attorney’s office with your list in hand. Having a rough starting point for what you want life to look like during and after the divorce will help your attorney strategize how best to extricate you from matrimonial quagmire, and help you determine if the attorney you consult with is a good fit for your goals. 

Your Prenuptial Agreement Or Any Agreement You Have With Your Spouse (If You Have One)

If you took the time to put together a prenuptial agreement, you better use it!  More than one potential client has come into Christy’s office for a consultation who had a prenuptial agreement and didn’t bring it with them.  This baffles us! To quote the cheesy cliche, help us help you! Your potential attorney can best advise you about how your settlement agreement may shape up by taking a good, long look at your prenuptial agreement. If you want to get your money’s worth from a consultation, make sure you bring all of the documents associated with your prenup.  The same goes if you and your spouse have started working out a separation agreement (or other agreement related to your pending split) in writing. Because your agreement may impact your case, it’s important that your potential attorney gets the chance to take a look.

A Brief Financial Picture

Take the time to prepare a quick financial snapshot before you go for your divorce consultation. This doesn’t have to be thorough— chicken scratch on the back of a cocktail napkin is fine. You should make one list all of your financial accounts (including, but not limited to checkings, savings, money market, investment accounts, and retirement accounts) both jointly with your spouse and individually.  That list should include how the account is titled— ie: whose is the primary account holder— and the current balance. On a second list you should put all of your credit accounts (including, but not limited to credit cards, student debt, personal loans, mortgage, car loan, etc.). That list should include the name of the debtor(s), the current balance on the debt, and the monthly payment. Finally, a third list should include any additional assets you and/or your spouse may have and its current value.  Think your house, your vehicles, your boat (if you are so lucky!), and any other high-dollar value items you may have.

For Christy, receiving this information allows her to give the most bang for a potential client’s buck in terms of an initial consultation.  She can give a prospective client a pretty good idea of what will happen to each of those assets and liabilities in a divorce and help a potential client understand what their financial picture will look like post divorce.

An important aspect to highlight to the attorney you meet with is if you don’t have access to your accounts because your spouse is withholding it. If this is the case, absolutely bring this to your attorney’s attention! Financial control and manipulation is a big red flag for abuse. If you’re intentionally being locked out of accounts and your attorney doesn’t flag this as an abusive tactic, consider meeting with an attorney that specializes in domestic violence.

Your Paystubs (Or Self-Employment Documents) And Tax Returns

If you (or your spouse) are seeking spousal support (aka alimony) or child support, then bringing your current paystubs and at least a couple of years of tax returns is critical.  Attorneys can’t give you anything approximating a realistic ballpark of support without this information, because most states have plug-and-play formulas they use to determine support. Without paystubs or tax documents, we can’t run child support guidelines or give you accurate information about the likelihood that you’ll receive spousal support. Knowing the probability of being awarded support will help you navigate The Worst Year Of Your Life and find your New Normal.

An Open Mind

You may have a solid idea about what you want your divorce to look like.  Your Husband moves out, the kids see him every-other-weekend, you stay in the house, etc.  After all, that’s how your sister/neighbor/best friend’s divorce went. Why shouldn’t yours? 

Because every divorce is as unique as the people splitting, that’s why. Before you pull into the attorney’s parking lot, repeat this mantra: No two divorces are alike! No two divorces are alike! Having an open mind about the hard things—  possible custody schedules, whether or not you need to sell the house, whether or not your family can continue to go on two weeks of vacation each summer— will help your prospective attorney come up with a strategy that meets your long term goals and makes sense for your unique circumstances.  

This is so hard and can be a bitter pill to swallow, we know.  But keeping an open mind at the beginning of your divorce process (i.e. at the initial consultation) will help prevent you from getting so firmly entrenched in a particular position that you are unable to move forward and think creatively when it comes time to talk settlement.  There are as many ways to get divorced as there are to get married, so don’t get stuck in cookie-cutter thinking that may prevent you from finding a solution that works for your unique circumstances. 

A List Of Your Questions

If you’ve been questioning whether or not to pull the plug on a dying marriage, you’ve likely developed a rather long list of existential, emotional and financial questions. Remembering to ask them all in a consultation is as difficult as remembering to ask your doctor all of your questions in an appointment.  It’s hard!! A lot of new information is being thrown in your direction about very important topics such as your housing, your finances, and your children. Bring a written list to make sure you don’t forget the things you want to ask.  

Regardless of what you bring to your divorce consultation don’t forget why you are in a divorce attorney’s office in the first place: (1) to get information about divorce in your jurisdiction– we firmly believe that knowledge is power!, (2) to get an idea about what your life could look like post-divorce, and (3) to evaluate whether the attorney you are meeting with is a great match for you. Armed with this information, you’ll know more about the best path forward towards your New Normal.

Erin Levine

Erin Levine


Erin Levine is a Certified Family Law Specialist and the owner and managing attorney of Levine Family Law Group, based in Oakland, CA. She is the founder and CEO of Hello Divorce.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

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