There are so many questions that are case-specific that you need to ask your divorce attorney, but I will give you some that need to be asked in every situation:
If you find yourself talking to an attorney who doesn’t focus on family law, you likely want to find a firm where representing clients in family law cases are what they do every day. Just as I would not want my dermatologist doing my heart surgery. Specialties matter.
The same goes for the type of law an attorney practices. You don’t, for instance, want to ask a local personal injury attorney to represent you in your divorce case.
Family law is a constantly evolving, never-ending mess of a practice area where the gray areas get lighter or darker as time progresses (and rarely black and white). Things change often and if you only dabble in family law, odds are you are not putting in the time or energy to know how best to represent your client.
Some too many people are the “jack/jane-of-all-trades” that think that offering divorce and family law services is easy money to keep the lights on between personal injury cases. These attorneys are routinely destroyed in Court, not because they are not good attorneys, but because the other attorney knows the Judge’s feelings on many issues and what the most up-to-date rulings are in the area of family law.
The bottom line is that everything you ever worked for and everything you hold dear in this world, including your children and your money, are up in the air. You want a warrior next to you that knows exactly what they are doing and how best to do it.
Family law has some black-and-white rules. The vast majority, however, is made up of gray areas. There is hardly any other area of law where the famous “it depends” answer is more applicable than when speaking with family and divorce lawyers.
The Judge has SO much discretion in family law and divorce cases that having an attorney who knows the Judge (if known) or practices routinely in front of the Judges in your county on these topics can greatly help your case. And even then, it often depends on which Judge gets assigned to your case.
What Judge X says in Courtroom 1 might be completely different than what Judge Y says in Courtroom 2. Having an attorney that knows how Judge X and Judge Y feel about a situation or issue gives you a good advantage over an attorney who is coming in blind.
Having an attorney that knows the Judge and practices in front of them often is the one you want giving you advice. Otherwise, you are rolling the dice on the issues and might be walking into a trial situation you lost long before your case even started.
My firm does a lot of cases at flat rate prices. However, we also do some work on a billable hour, which is how the vast majority of the attorneys run their businesses. Often your attorney will work off of a “retainer”. This is an amount you give to the attorney, who then puts it in their trust account. They bill against this amount until it is out or drops below a certain point, then you have to fill it up again. These can be depleted quickly, especially if the attorney bills in half-hour increments. Every email you send could be costing you hundreds of dollars. Every voicemail you leave is draining that retainer.
Know the rates of the attorneys and the rates of the support staff and in what increments they bill (example: my office bills by the 1/10th of the hour, so you are billed in 6 minutes increments). I warn you now; it will not be cheap. And if it is cheap, you get what you pay for.
I am often told, “well X attorney said he would do it for less per hour/cheaper flat rate.” Did you know that X attorney has a drinking problem and just got his license back after a suspension for stealing clients’ money? I don’t talk badly about other attorneys too often, but if the deal is too good to be true, you might consider looking elsewhere.
Pro tip: ask this BEFORE the consultation. My firm offers free phone consultations. If you do an in-person consultation, we charge for that (though it is usually included in your flat-rate divorce and family law pricing at my firm). I used to offer free in-person consultations, but too often, my time was wasted by someone wanting to make sure I could not represent their spouse or someone who wanted a second opinion on what their attorney was doing. It was a huge waste of time that needed to be spent on my paying clients, so now we charge for our time. I know I am not alone in this practice, and most good attorneys do charge for their consultations. Do not assume that your in-person consultation is free.
That being said, you probably want to hire an attorney that charges for their time. Those that can afford to give away their time often don’t have a demand for it. As I said, most good attorneys are far too busy to sit down for an hour or more in the hopes that you hire them. But paying for a seasoned attorney to listen to your questions and offer advice is often money well spent. Be upfront that you are only looking for a consultation or to have some questions answered with the attorney, and most likely, everyone will come away from the meeting feeling that it was a good use of time and money.