What exactly do you need to know before you hire a lawyer? Here are some questions to ask before you write a retainer check or sign on the dotted line.
Concerning general experience, ask these questions:
- How many matrimonial cases have you handled?
- How many of those cases went to trial? (An attorney who has done a lot of trials might not be a good negotiator. Keep that in mind, especially when the lawyer hasn't been in practice very long.)
- How many of these cases involved custody, support, business valuations, large financial settlements, or whatever issue feels like your major concern?
- Where did you go to law school? (Don't ask if the diploma is staring you in the face.)
- Are you experienced in unbundled divorce (or collaborative divorce, or whatever style of divorce you hope to enter)?
- Do you have the time to take on a new case now?
- Do you know my husband (or wife)?
- Do you know his or her attorney?
Ask about day-to-day operations:
- Will anyone (usually an associate) be assisting you on my case?
- What is his or her experience?
- Can I meet the associate now?
- What work would the associate do and what work would you do?
- Which one of you will negotiate the case? (If you want to be sure that the lawyer you are seeing is the negotiator, make that clear. You don't want an intern performing your quadruple bypass surgery, and you don't want an inexperienced associate you haven't met negotiating your divorce.)
- Who will try my case?
- Are you available to take phone calls?
- Is the associate available to take calls?
- What hours are you usually in the office?
- Do you have any time-consuming trials coming up?
- Will I get copies of all papers (letters, faxes, legal papers) in my case? (Be sure the answer is “yes.”)
Make sure the fees are clear:
- What is your hourly billing rate?
- What is the associate's billing rate?
- If both you and the associate are working on my case at the same time, am I billed at your combined rates? (Some firms do that only if two attorneys are needed, such as at trial. Others do it routinely, and others only bill you at the higher attorney's rate.)
- Is your fee for trial different from your hourly rate? (Some attorneys charge a set fee for every day they are in court.)
- Do you charge a retainer, and how much is it?
- Will the billing arrangements be set out in writing? (Insist that they be.)
- What happens when the retainer is used up?
- Will you keep me informed each month as to how much of the retainer has been depleted?
- What happens if I get behind on the bills?
- Can you collect your fees from my spouse?
- How much am I billed for copies of all relevant documents? (If the fee is too high, you might want to make copies on your own.)
- What extra fees should I expect? (Your retainer will spell out your responsibility for “fees”—what the lawyer charges for his/her time versus “costs”—things like court filing fees, process server fees, excessive postage, messengers, stenographers, or similar out-of-pocket expenses.)
- Are those fees due in advance, and will I know in advance what they are?
- Am I billed for telephone calls?
- Do you have a minimum unit of time you bill me for? (Some lawyers will bill you for 5 or even 15 minutes when a call takes only 4 minutes.
Ask these questions about handling the case:
- Will I have input in decisions concerning strategy in my case?
- Will I be kept informed of all developments?
- What problems do you foresee arising in my case?
- What are your personal feelings about joint custody versus sole custody? Sometimes a lawyer has strong convictions one way or the other that could potentially affect the outcome of your case despite the fact that your wishes should prevail.
- Based on your experience, how much do you think my case will cost?
Before you make the final decision to sign on with a lawyer, be sure to fill out the attorney checklist. It will guide you in your decision—and serve as a reminder about your agreement in the months to come.
After you have decided whom you want to represent you, a reputable lawyer will send you his or her written agreement concerning fees and will give you time to ask questions about the agreement before you sign it. If a lawyer asks you to sign an agreement in his or her office without giving you the chance to think it over, look for another lawyer. Sometimes it's worth showing the agreement to your business or personal lawyer, whom you trust. If and when you do return the written agreement, you usually have to include the retainer check required as your initial payment.