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Questions to Ask a Lawyer

You're Smart to Read This

Consumer Reports magazine reported in a few years ago that 27 percent of the people who had hired a lawyer for an adversarial matter were dissatisfied with the work done. Then the magazine asked people whether they were highly satisfied with legal services in 17 areas. Divorce ranked 17th - dead last - in the degree of satisfaction. Less than half those surveyed reported being highly satisfied with the lawyer who worked on their divorce.

The most common complaint about lawyers was that they didn't return phone calls promptly. The second most common complaint is that they didn't pay enough attention to the case.

How Can You Do Better?

Sorry, no quickie miracles. Choosing the right lawyer to help you in your divorce is hard work. But it's important and worth taking the time to do it right.

First, ask yourself what it is you're trying to accomplish. Do you just need an uncontested divorce? Is mediation a possibility? Or has your relationship with your spouse deteriorated to the point that what you really need is simply a warrior to go forth and do bloody (and frightfully expensive) battle on your behalf in an adversarial divorce?

Are your affairs fairly simple, so that most any lawyer with basic understanding and good people skills can help you, or do you have complex property holdings and support goals, so that you need a lawyer with sophisticated tax and financial awareness to help you design a plan that yields the most after-tax dollars? Knowing the kind of legal services you're going to need will help you shop for those services more effectively.

Is it possible you don't need to hire a lawyer? Perhaps you should consider a Prepaid Legal Plan, which offers unlimited access to legal advice for less than the cost of a cup of coffee per day.

Feel free to visit with several lawyers before making a decision. If the lawyer seems offended that you would do this, he or she may not be confident enough to serve you well. Note: you should not be offended if a lawyer asks you to pay a consultation fee even for the first meeting. Once the lawyer meets with you, he or she usually cannot represent your spouse, and that may be a substantial cost to the lawyer's practice.

Your analysis of each prospective lawyer begins with the first phone call. Many lawyers with predominantly courtroom practices are hard to reach on the telephone, so you may be spending a good bit of time with the person who answers the phone. Does the person answering seem pleasant? Well informed about the issues you are facing? Able to deliver results?

Are you able to schedule an appointment with the lawyer easily? If the lawyer can't see you to talk about new business, it may be even harder to get his or her attention to talk about your case once it's been underway for a while.

When you enter the lawyer's office, look for technology. If you see a computer on the lawyer's desk (and if it's turned on), it indicates the lawyer is using technology, which should enable the lawyer to spend less time (and less of your money) to produce the documents needed for your case.

As you visit with each lawyer, trust your judgment. Ask yourself, do I like this person? Does he or she seem willing to take the time to listen to what's going on in my life and what I want to accomplish? To explain the options available to me?

Unless you're facing a filing deadline, you'll rarely need to rush into the decision of which lawyer to use. Better to learn all you can about several lawyers and then make the decision at your own pace. Feel free to discuss what you've learned with a trusted friend or relative before making the decision, and in particular before depositing a large retainer.

And finally, before you hire a lawyer for an adversarial divorce, make sure you read the Open Letter from a Divorce Lawyer. It's painful to read, but the experiences of millions of people going through divorce verify it constantly.

So What Do You Ask?

Here are some questions you may want to ask any lawyer you're considering using in connection with your divorce:

  1. What sort of experience do you have with divorces? How have you handled divorces like mine before? Without breaching client confidence, please tell me about them. How many divorces like mine did you handle in the past year?
  2. Do you specialize in divorces, or are divorces just a part of your practice?
  3. What can you do to help me understand the tax effect of the decisions I will have to make?
  4. What kind of resources can you make available to me to help me get through my divorce with as little pain as possible?
  5. Will anyone else in your office be working on my case? Can I meet them?
  6. How long have you been doing divorce work? How have you seen divorce and your practice change during this time? (More and more divorcing couples are taking control of their divorce, reducing the frequency of adversarial divorce and increasing their use of mediation. Some lawyers embrace and encourage these changes, and some don't.)
  7. How will you charge me? What is your hourly rate? Do you charge for the time I spend with other lawyers, with paralegals, and/or with secretaries? If so, at what rate?
  8. Do you insist that I pay you a retainer up front, or will you allow me to pay you as you render services? In addition to the fees for your services, what expenses do you expect will be involved (for example, for private investigators, forensic accountants, physicians, and/or psychologists), and how will you charge me for them?
  9. Do you charge for faxes, copies, and long-distance telephone calls? How much? (Some lawyers consider these services an additional profit opportunity.)
  10. What's your estimate of the total cost to me of this divorce? (Don't be concerned if the lawyer resists answering this question. So much of the cost of a divorce depends on the degree of conflict between you and your spouse, and you know that better than the lawyer. You may learn a lot from the lawyer's answer, however, so it's helpful to ask.)
  11. Do you advocate mediation? What style of mediation do you prefer? In how many cases have you represented a client who was mediating his or her divorce? What mediators would you recommend? If my spouse and I mediate, will I have to pay you to be there the whole time, or can I use you simply as an coach on an as-needed basis?
  12. If I decide at any point I'd like to take control and negotiate directly with my spouse or with my spouse's lawyer to save money, will you let me do that, using you as a coach? Or will you insist that all communications flow through you? How do you feel about unbundling of legal services in divorce?
  13. How can I keep the cost of my divorce down? Are there tasks that I can do myself to cut down on the amount you will charge me?
  14. What other services do you think I will need from you in connection with my divorce, such as bills of sale, deeds, trusts, and an updated will, and how much will you charge me to do them?
  15. Based on what you know about my case, how would you predict a judge would rule on it? What facts would make the ruling more in my favor? If my spouse were sitting here with you asking the same questions, how would you answer my spouse?
  16. Do you carry malpractice insurance? How much? Have you ever had to make a claim on your malpractice insurance? (Nationwide, it's estimated that a third of lawyers do not carry malpractice insurance. This means that if one of those lawyers represented you poorly, even if you were able to get a judgment against them for their poor work, you might not be able to collect any money on the judgment.)
  17. Have you had any clients or former clients file grievances against you with the bar association? If so, please tell me about them.
  18. Do you track the satisfaction rate of your clients? How? What is your satisfaction rate? Don't expect a positive answer to this question. Most lawyers can tell you only the vaguest generalities about the rate at which their clients are satisfied with their work. If you find one who actually measures satisfaction, you've found a rare bird indeed.

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