What to ask an attorney during your first interview

Our prior post entitled How to choose the right Dallas divorce lawyer reviewed the first three points of the article written by Carla Schiff Donnelly from the Huffington Post. Her final three points address the questions you should ask a potential divorce lawyer before hiring and the questions you should ask yourself. Here, I will review the questions Donnelly poses. Then, in a future post, I will endeavor to answer the questions Donnelly advises be asked.

3. Ask questions of the attorney at the initial consultation.

Donnelly advises you to ask the following questions of the divorce lawyer being interviewed:

• How long have you practiced family law?
• What is your approach to a new case?
• What percentage of cases do you settle?
• What is your approach to settling a case?
• What retainer do you require up front?
• Is any unused portion of the retainer refundable?
• Who in your firm will work on my case and how much will I pay for their time?
• How often will I receive an accounting of my retainer?

4. Take inventory after the meeting regarding your feelings regarding the lawyer interviewed.

• Did you feel comfortable opening up to this attorney?
• Did you feel intimidated by him?
• Was she a good listener, or did they spend the entire time singing their own praises?
• Did you feel as though this attorney would take a practical approach to your case?
• Did she tell you anything you did not want to hear? This is a good thing because the attorney’s job is to tell you what to realistically expect from the process. Unrealistic expectations serve no reasonable purpose.

5. Trust your gut – if it doesn’t not seem right, it probably isn’t.

Hire the attorney that you connect with. You need to feel comfortable with your lawyer. If he or she doesn’t give you “warm fuzzies” when you first interview them, hire a different lawyer. There’s nothing wrong with that. We just don’t connect with everyone.
 

The Many Hats of a Divorce Lawyer

As a divorce lawyer in Dallas for 20+ years, I’ve learned that divorce lawyers wear many hats when working for their clients.  From mental health counselor to financial planner, from creditor’s rights to business litigation,  divorce lawyers give advice to clients about many different areas of their life. 

This week, I wore the hat of a landlord/tenant lawyer. My client received two rental properties in the asset division and now he must learn to deal with issues such as property managers, security deposits, and rent collection.  At the same time that he assumed the ownership and responsibility for the properties, the tenants in both properties moved out.  Thus, we had to address the return of the security deposits to them in accordance with the law. The rental properties are in another state, so this complicated matters.  We also had to reconcile the rents received, mortgages paid, and HOA dues paid. I’ve been asked to interface with the property management for both units to make sure that the security deposits are addressed properly and to ensure my client’s records are up-to-date with his take over.  Having a basic understanding of landlord/tenant law assisted me in helping the client navigate these  new waters. 

I also was called upon in another case to research the criminal record of the opposing party.  We found that he has multiple criminal convictions.  Because I’m not as familiar with criminal law, and especially federal criminal law, I called a friend who practices in that area for advice.  Sometimes it is better and more economical to seek help from a specialist in an area rather than charting new waters. 

I’ve also had to address bankruptcy issues this week regarding a third client. For various reasons, the client may need to file for bankruptcy and we had to evaluate whether to file now or whether it would be better for him to file at some point in the future. He was under the mistaken impression that filing bankruptcy would speed up the divorce process.  To the contrary, I had to explain to him that filing bankruptcy actually works to stay the divorce proceedings, which will elongate the process, not shorten it.  Again, I called in a bankruptcy lawyer to advise the client in areas unfamiliar to me. 

At any point in time, a divorce lawyer must also know something about business law, corporate litigation, bankruptcy law, creditor’s rights, criminal law, landlord/tenant, real estate law, estate planning, and many other areas.

 

Texas divorce FAQ: My attorney is attractive - can I date him/her?

Having a personal relationship with an attorney while he/she represents you raises an ethical conflict of interest and will require the attorney to withdraw from representing you. Further, such a relationship will compromise the objectivity of the attorney’s advice. if the attorney is worth dating, he/she will be worth dating after your case is over. It is always advisable to wait until your current relationship is over, if it is a divorce, to start a new one.

Texas divorce FAQ: Can I change lawyers?

 

You have an absolute right to have the lawyer of your choice represent you. If you become dissatisfied with your lawyer, you can fire that lawyer and hire another one. Keep in mind that the new lawyer may spend time, and therefore charge you money, for getting up to speed on your case. And, your contractual obligations to pay your prior lawyer for time spent on your case are not relieved just because you change lawyers.

 

Divorce Attorney Expectations

You are going through divorce -- you retain an attorney and at the end of the day you have a visceral reaction -- you either love or hate your divorce attorney. While a good attorney could use his legal knowledge and skills to get you a better settlement, the facts of your case largely determine the outcome of your case. So why then, do clients have such extreme reactions to their lawyers?

In large measure, the client’s satisfaction with his legal representation is directly related to his expectations from the attorney-client relationship. So what can the client expect of his attorney?

Cathy Meyer in her article Are You Expecting Too Much From Your Divorce Attorney? identifies five things clients should minimally expect from their attorneys:

1. Regular Communication.

Responsiveness is crucial. More complaints are lodged against attorneys with disciplinary boards for not returning phone calls than any other reason.

In my office, it is the practice to attempt to return calls and answer client emails the day they are received . Divorce is emotionally charged. It can be nerve wracking and gut wrenching. Your attorney should expeditiously answer your questions and address your concerns in a timely manner.

2. Full Disclosure.

Your attorney should be willing to discuss in full with you what is happening in your case and what they expect to happen in the future. A good divorce attorney will suggest strategies for your case; explain the discovery process, negotiate on your behalf, and have your back should you go to divorce court.

Client’s should receive copies of all letters, emails and legal documents. When the communication involves a client’s substantive rights, the client should have an opportunity to review the final product before it goes out.

3. Due Process.

It is your divorce attorney's responsibility to make sure you are treated fairly by the court during your divorce.

4. Availability.

Appointments with your divorce attorney are an opportunity for you to gauge where you are in the divorce process and the direction your case is heading. If you have a divorce attorney who cancels or rushes you through appointments, you have a bad divorce attorney.

5. Basic Courtesy and Civility.

Little things matter. It costs nothing to be courteous and polite. While the adage “the customer is always right” be not be 100% accurate in a divorce case, the client is always entitled to respect and common courtesy. When differences of opinion arise on how an issue should be handled, the client is entitled to a reasoned, but polite explanation. It is seldom productive to be rude, derisive or hostile

In the end, the client should expect the attorney to counsel and to communicate a strategy and an analysis of the relevant facts and law to enable the client to make informed decisions about their case.

Hat tip to Daniel Clement of the most excellent New York Divorce Report.

Save Attorneys Fees Through Email

Most of our clients are very comfortable using email for their informal correspondence to friends and family. Not every client is accustomed to using email as a form of business communication, however. In some instances misuse of email in client correspondence can misdirect and even hinder an attorney's effectiveness in the case.

If you've hired an attorney to represent you in your divorce, child custody, or other family law matter, or plan to do so in the future, then you will be communicating with your attorney's team on a regular basis. You'll meet with your attorney and legal team face-to-face. You'll talk on the telephone. You'll send and receive letters by U.S. Mail, FedEx, and UPS. And you'll send and receive emails, probably a lot of them. Today's article is about getting in the habit of sending emails to your attorney in a productive time-is-money manner.

Tip #1. This is business. Stick to the legal matter at hand.

Avoid using emoticons like smileys, and abbreviations like ROFL and OMG, in your email messages to your lawyer. Those are certainly fun and useful in personal email messages and maybe on your facebook page, but they detract from your message in an email to your attorney. Also, make sure to check your spelling, and use proper punctuation and standard capitalization. TYPING YOUR EMAIL IN ALL CAPS SHOUTS AT THE READER, DOESN'T MAKE WHAT YOU HAVE TO SAY MORE IMPORTANT, AND CAN MAKE YOUR MESSAGE MUCH MORE DIFFICULT TO READ.

Tip #2. Think. Pause. Think Again. Then Send.

This is great email advice for everyone from the American Society of Legal Writers. Always proofread your email carefully before you hit send. If your email is replete with errors, or doesn't flow logically, then the attorney receiving it will spend that much more billable time trying to figure out what you really meant to say. Take the time to write carefully, to proofread your message, to make sure it reads logically and says specifically what you intended. Then send. If you can get your message across to your attorney on his or her first reading, then you've saved time and money in legal fees.

Tip #3. A timely "reply" is good. A "forward" to your attorney is good. A "forward" of your attorney's email is too late.

Don't be in such a hurry to send a message to your attorney that you accidentally "forward" instead of a direct "reply" to your attorney's original message. If you receive an important message from your sister, for example, with a link to your estranged spouse's MySpace page, then forwarding her message to your attorney may help your case. But don't forward your attorney's emails to anyone, ever. Here's an example: Let's say you feel an overwhelming need to share what's happening in your case and so you forward your attorney's email to your sister, who forwards it to your mother, who then shares it with your 16-year-old son, who promptly forwards it to your soon to be ex-spouse, who now knows way more than he or she should about your attorney's strategy in the case.

Tip #4. Always protect your privacy online.

Because of emails' simplicity and universal application, it is far too easy to send personal information without reflecting on what is being sent and where it could end up. Never provide your Personally Identifiable Information (PII)-such as your social security number, birth date, mother's maiden name, or banking information-in an email message. Don't give away anyone else's PII either. Criminals use PII to exploit and steal identities. So think before you send and always remember that unencrypted email is the postcard any carrier can read and forward.

Contact the Dallas family law attorneys at the O'Neil Attorneys by email today, we look forward to hearing from you.


Resources:

Law Office of Scott David Stewart blog

The American Society of Legal Writers
http://www.scribes.org/


 

Tips for controlling attorney's fees.

Make no mistake about it, divorces can be quite expensive.  Notwithstanding, there are several ways that you can help reduce the amount of attorney and paralegal fees you incur in your case.  As a Dallas divorce attorney our office has found that the following are quite helpful in controlling costs:

  1. Communicate with your attorney via email.  A typical day for me involves reviewing hundreds of emails and returning several phone calls.  Putting your thoughts down in writing helps you to single out what your concerns are when you talk to me.  With that in mind, when you email me, try and be as concise as possible.  In doing so I won't have to dig through your email to determine what the question or concern is.  
  2. Keep accurate financial records.  In all likelihood you will be required to file an inventory and appraisal of the community and separate estates.  By keeping up with your financial records, or at a minimum knowing where to readily obtain them, you can greatly reduce costs.  If you don't keep accurate records, or know where to get them, either I or my staff will have to obtain them for you and then sift through them.  
  3. Understand that while I genuinely care about you and your case, I have to charge you for my time.  With that in mind, try to limit our communications to the subject at hand.  We are genuinely empathetic to all our clients and are very passionate about what we do, but if your emotions are running high, you can save a good deal of money by talking to a counselor, friend, clergy member or family member.
  4. When our office sends you something for your review and approval, please do so as soon as possible.  If I or my staff have to contact you to remind you about a task, you will incur fees.

If you keep these tips in mind, you can greatly reduce the amount of attorneys fees in a divorce case.  These tips are simply guidelines and not hard and fast rules.  When seeking out an attorney, it is completely appropriate for you to ask how you can help control costs.  If the prospective attorney does not have an answer, I suggest you keep looking. 

It is best to win without fighting.

Recently I posted an entry about the lamb, the bulldog and the fox,  In keeping with that post it is fitting to share an entry which describes the perils of being overly aggressive.  In Fox Rothchild's New Jersey Family Law Blog the author described how fighting for the sake of fighting distracts the court from the two most important things: (1) our client; and (2) our client's rights and needs.  Clients hire divorce attorneys for two main reasons: (1) the attorney knows the law; and (2) the attorney will be objective.  If the attorney is more interested in fighting for the sake of fighting, then objectivity is frequently lost.  When objectivity is lost the client is the one who suffers. 

Although our Dallas divorce firm zealously advocates on behalf of our clients, we also understand how to combine the right amount of aggressiveness with tact in order to acheive the absolute best result for our clients. 

You look so nice, but can you be mean?

I recently came across a blog written by an Alabama divorce attorney that covers one of the questions our firm is asked a lot:  You look so nice, but can you be "mean"?  Typically people come into our office looking not only for a way to move on with their lives, but also for some sort of revenge.  The style of your lawyer will greatly influence to what extent this is possible and appropriate.

Divorce lawyers generally fit into one of three categories: (1) the lamb; (2) the bulldog; and (3) the fox.  The lamb is the type of lawyer who takes a reactive instead of a proactive approach to case management.  The lamb avoids confrontation with his or her client and opposing counsel at all costs, and often at a disadvantage to the client.  In short, the lamb's laissez-faire mentality hinders client advancement and often results in an inequitable resolution of the case. 

Directly opposite the lamb is the bulldog.  The bulldog seeks out confrontation (often on frivolous issues) at all costs and is typically the first personality type that comes to mind when clients think of a "mean" lawyer.  Although the bulldog's aggression is no doubt appropriate in some instances, it also poses an obstacle in the road towards favorable resolution.  The bulldog's aggressive approach can end up costing the client both in terms of property and custody matters but also in unnecessary attorneys fees. 

Finally, we have the fox.  The fox sees the forest through the trees and is cunning enough to know when aggression is appropriate and when it is not.  Unlike the lamb, the fox is not afraid of confrontation; and unlike the bulldog, the fox knows that fair out of court settlement are always preferred to litigation.  The fox is assertive when appropriate and aware of the consequences of its actions. 

Do yourself a favor when searching for a divorce attorney and hire yourself a fox (our Dallas divorce firm has three of them). You'll be far better off in the long run than you would with a bulldog.