A frequent question that I hear from clients is "How should I prepare for the initial meeting with a divorce lawyer?" There are several key issues involved. First, you are meeting a lawyer for the first time and that lawyer is meeting you. You are both sizing each other up. Is this the right lawyer? Is this the right client? The initial consultation is the time to gather facts and also see if there is an emotional rapport. Since divorce is one of the most psychologically traumatic events that anyone can go through, having a good lawyer who you are comfortable with is critical.
Some lawyers will have an assistant meet with you to take down the initial basic information. I prefer to meet with my prospective client and take down the information myself. In this way, I can ask questions as we go along and help get a feel for not only the case, but also the prospective client. The client, on the other hand, is not being pawned off on an assistant, but is actually meeting with the attorney who can answer questions directly and help the prospective client know if this is the right attorney.
What should the client bring? Tax returns are helpful. A listing of assets and liabilities, especially if they are complicated. Bank statements, investment statements from brokerage companies. If there are businesses, bring corporate tax returns as well as personal tax returns. If there are credit card debts, bring the most recent statements. Bring mortgage statements, if possible. Be prepared to give a history of your marriage, along with answering the questions I often ask, "Why are you here?" "Is there any chance of saving the marriage?" I believe in referring someone to marriage counseling, if at all possible and that will be discussed at the initial meeting.
Once the basic facts, including the history of the marriage, employment information, assets and liabilities have been discussed, then we get into issues involving the breakdown of the marriage. One of my next questions will be "Will custody be an issue (if there are minor children)?"
Is this a case where there should be alimony? If you do not have a lot of financial information, which happens in many situations, do not panic. I have represented a lot of people, both men and women, who have not been involved in the finances of the marriage. There are also cases where one spouse or the other is very controlling and keeps everything secret. These are the cases where there will be a lot of discovery through interrogatories (questions that must be answered under oath), depositions, where necessary, and subpoenas, where a lot of the financial information can be produced.
Fees should be discussed. Do not hesitate to ask the attorney what he or she charges. How much is the retainer? What is the hourly rate? Are there charges for work done by support staff? Are there charges for faxes? Xerox copies? Telephone calls? Postage? These are all important questions. Do not be bashful. Do not hesitate to ask questions. An attorney should give you time to tell your story and should be willing to answer questions at the initial consultation. Remember, you are sizing up the attorney, and even the best attorneys may not be the right fit. Trust your gut reaction. Do not hesitate to ask an attorney about his or her experience. Many attorneys dabble in divorce. You don't want a dabbler. You want someone who is a specialist, especially if you have some complicated issues.
Last, but not least, remember that the attorney is working for you and is there to assist you and guide you through one of the most complicated and painful chapters of your life. Feel free to share your thoughts and questions with me and others on this site.
By: HENRY S. GORNBEIN
Family Law Attorney & Legal Correspondent
40900 Woodward Avenue, Ste. 111
Bloomfield Hills, MI 48304-5116
248/594-3444; Fax 248/594-3222