One of the heaviest doors to open is the one that leads into your first meeting with a divorce lawyer. In addition to all of the emotional stress that you carry, there are a seemingly endless number of questions that fill your mind about the path that you are about to travel.
As an attorney who is exclusively focused on the practice of family law, I have met with hundreds of clients who have been in this exact situation. I believe that one of my primary roles during this initial consultation is to simply inform them about the divorce process so that they can prepare for the journey ahead.
Below are general answers to some of the top questions that I have received from people during these first consults. This list neither constitutes nor is intended to be legal advice. Please be advised that if you need legal counsel, you should consult an attorney regarding your individual situation.
1. How much is this going to cost?
Answer: The choice is yours -- do you want to send your attorney's kids to college or your own? I have seen clients with similar cases spend anywhere from $2,500 to well over $40,000 just for attorney fees and court costs. There are no guarantees because some divorcing spouses are ruthless, or they hire law firms that treat their cases more like money machines than real families in transition. While you cannot control the former, you can ensure that you entrust your case to an attorney who will resolve the divorce for a reasonable fee and in a reasonable amount of time. When hiring an attorney, you should always ask for full information about their retainer policy, fee structure and billing practices before hiring them. And if you walk into a firm with a beautiful skyline view, armies of attentive staffers and gorgeous furniture, you better enjoy it... because you are the one paying for all of that.
2. How long is this going to take?
Answer: Divorce can take as little as 60 days or more than a full year. You are in the driver's seat, but the other side may drag it out. There also might be strategic reasons that you intentionally delay the process (i.e. you might be in the middle of liquidating a major asset or there could be a simultaneous criminal proceeding whose ruling will affect your case). Particularly in hotly contested cases, it is very important to take time to get the order correct in the initial decree, because the opposing party is likely to file for a modification in the future. Unless circumstances have significantly changed (i.e. job loss or new criminal proceedings), these modifications rarely make substantial changes from the initial decree.
3. This should be simple. Do I really need a lawyer?
Answer: There are no simple cases -- unless you are willing to lose everything. Many attorneys advertise "flat fee" divorces, but you get what you pay for. Even if you are a fellow family lawyer, I would advise hiring an attorney. Would you operate on your own arm if it were broken? The forms at the courthouse are adequate for you to represent yourself, but a bad divorce decree is hard to undo. It can be much more expensive to pay an attorney to mop up the spills of a bad pro se case than to simply hire a competent family lawyer in the first place.
4. Do I have to go to court?
Answer: It depends on the result that you want and how badly you want it. It also depends on your spouse's position. To avoid court, both parties need to take reasonable positions so that they can settle outside of court in mediation or collaborative law, which will save them both a lot of stress, time and money. But if either party is looking at the process as a way to "get back" at the other spouse, or if either party is crazy (especially over money), you are destined to be sitting in the hot seat of the witness box. And if your spouse has hired a powerhouse firm that needs to cover their overhead and bloated costs, then you may find yourself in court so much that you start to memorize the cafeteria menu and say goodbye to the security guards, who are now your friends.
5. What happens if we get back together -- did I just waste all of my money?
Answer: In my ten years of practice and more than 600 closed cases, this has only happened twice. So, while you might be in that one-third of one-percent, chances are that you are not wasting your money. However, just to make you feel better, most retainers are fully refundable per the Professional Code (at least mine is). So, you are covered.