A family law lawyer might talk to you briefly over the telephone to introduce himself (which is free of charge) and to get a sense of what kind of service you need. The first meaningful contact between the two of you is probably going to be an initial consultation in his (or her) office. This type of consultation is usually the first time you will pay for a service through the divorce attorney. There will often be a fixed fee for the meeting, so you will know beforehand what you are getting into.
The first meeting with a family law attorney is your chance to get important information, and to decide whether this lawyer is the one who can do the job for you. Divorce lawyers are just like anyone else; some are easier to get along with than others, and some have better skills and experience. As in any new relationship, “gut feeling” can be as important as a reasoned opinion. As you discuss your situation and listen to how the family law lawyer responds to your concerns, think about the person sitting across from you. Does he try to put you at ease in his office? Does he listen to what you have to say, and seem to understand what you are dealing with? Does he seem experienced with situations like yours, and does his advice make sense? If he cannot answer a question, will he explain the reason? Is this someone you feel you can trust during this difficult period of your life?
Although one meeting cannot give you every solution to every problem, by the time it is over you should have a fairly solid understanding of where you stand right now, what might (or should) happen next, and what to do to protect yourself.
Information. Your divorce lawyer should place the rug back under your feet, giving you the information you need to understand your options so that when you make your move, you are not shooting in the dark. A good family law lawyer can give you the benefit of many people’s experiences, pointing out strengths and pitfalls, and making suggestions that might help you get what you need without having to fight. He will listen carefully to your concerns, and offer meaningful perspectives.
Diligence. Your divorce attorney will stay on top of your case, meet deadlines, and always will be prepared when he appears in court. He will prepare you for your role in the case, and will make the most of every opportunity.
Communication. Your telephone calls will be returned with reasonable promptness, and your family law attorney will keep you informed of important developments of in your case. He will offer you clear answers to your questions, in plain English.
Courtesy and respect. A good divorce lawyer will treat you as a valued client, and will conduct himself professionally toward both opposing counsel and your spouse. A family law lawyer should never sacrifice standards of decency in the name of zealous representation, and those who do can actually make things worse for their own clients.
Candor. A divorce attorney who doesn’t “give it to you straight” isn’t doing you much good. If you don’t know the true picture of your situation as your family law attorney sees it, you can’t take it into account when you make decisions. A good divorce lawyer may not always have good news for you, but you will always know what he thinks about your situation.
Confidentiality. You can feel comfortable speaking to your family law lawyer freely, provided that you do not expect him to help you hide assets or support perjury.
All licensed Pennsylvania lawyers are required to conform to a professional code of ethics that is enforced by the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A good family law attorney values a solid reputation among colleagues and judges for ethical conduct, and can offer that reputation to his clients. A divorce lawyer’s reputation is only ever as good as the faith he keeps today, and maintaining it will be extremely important to him. When you retain a family law lawyer, don’t expect a “mouthpiece,” television-style courtroom drama, or an “anything we can get away with” attitude. A good divorce attorney’s effectiveness lies in the good advice he offers and his skillful handling of your case, not in undirected aggression and expensive bluster. Other things not to expect a good family law attorney to do:
- Hide your income and assets.
- Lie to his opponent or to the court, or permit you to do so.
- Tolerate disrespectful conduct, or turn a blind eye toward it.
- Escalate or manufacture a fight where none need occur.
- Create or escalate a fight for its own sake.
- Indulge in bitter rhetorical contests at his client’s expense.
- Extend credit to you in lieu of prompt payment.
Perhaps most important of all, never expect your divorce lawyer to take sole responsibility for your case like the mechanic who keeps your car on the road. You are an essential part of the litigation process, because when all is said and done, you – and perhaps your children, too – will be the one living the consequences of what you do today. You are facing some of the most important life choices you may ever have to make, both for you and for your children; don’t surrender them to someone else.
Candor. There is no such thing as a perfect case, and no one leads a perfect life. If your divorce lawyer doesn’t know about the skeletons in your closet, he won’t be prepared when your spouse throws the door wide open to put them on display! It is always better for your family law lawyer to find out about the challenges he will face from you in his office, rather than from your spouse in a courtroom.
Follow his advice. Your divorce attorney offers you the benefit of his education and experience, an outside perspective, a cool head and the experiences of other people who faced what you now must face. He knows that it is never enough to be right or to deserve justice, and that there are some forms of vindication that no judge can ever deliver. He knows what judges want to see (and don’t want to see!), and how they are likely to view what you say and do. While he can never guarantee you favorable results, he can suggest approaches that might help you, guide you around the pitfalls that are common to family law cases, and help you make the most of the strong points of your case.
Respect, courtesy and common sense. At a time in your life when you might be least able to maintain a cool head, it is all the more important that you do so. Even spouses who never wanted to fight can find themselves in foxholes because of a moment’s passionate anger. You can’t control your spouse’s actions, but you can – and must – keep control over yourself and your conduct. If you act like you are being recorded every time you deal with your spouse, and are prepared to answer for every decision you make, you will never have to fear the truth. Your family law attorney can be your sword-and-shield, or he can be your broom-and-dustpan; your conduct can make all the difference.
Pay attention, and stay in touch. Stay involved in your case, and be your divorce attorney’s active partner. Open, read and (if necessary) respond promptly to what he sends you. Return his phone calls. Keep him up to date on developments that may affect your case.
Give him what he asks for. During the course of your case, your divorce lawyer will probably ask you for a variety of information and documents, or you may have to provide them to your spouse as part of the litigation process. Be diligent in responding to these requests, and discuss any concerns or questions as early as possible.
Follow court orders. Unless your family law lawyer tells you differently, always follow court orders. Failure to do so can result in penalties that range from frustrating to crippling, depending on the nature of the violation.
Really, there is no meaningful way to answer this very reasonable question unless the service you need has a fixed fee. Every case is unique, and the cost of legal services usually depends upon how much time the divorce attorney has to spend working for you. Family law attorneys usually break down time spent working on your case into tenths of an hour. For some services, minimum fees will apply. Like any other investment, legal services are most cost-effective when they offer a reasonable prospect of a good return, or when they are your best opportunity to prevent even greater damage. A good divorce lawyer will take the cost of his own services into account when advising you about possible courses of action.
Family law lawyers usually work on retainer: you will make an advance payment to your divorce attorney to create a fund that he will draw against to pay himself as he earns the money. You will have to replenish this fund if it becomes too depleted, according to the terms of your written fee agreement. Do not expect your family law attorney to work for you on credit. Unless your fee agreement says otherwise – and read it carefully! – retainers are usually refundable to the extent that they have not been earned by services rendered expenses incurred.
There are some things you can do to keep your legal costs down, and to get the most “bang” for your legal buck:
- Take notes when you talk to your divorce lawyer, so that you can avoid asking the same questions more than once.
- Keep your communications with your family law lawyer direct and to the point, without the false economy of cutting things so short that you prevent him from getting the information he needs, or from giving you the advice you need.
- Become a clerk on your own case: promptly gather and organize any necessary information or records that your divorce attorney needs, and discuss with him what other “legwork” you might be able to do to keep your costs down.
- Call your family law attorney to address potential problems before they happen, because it is usually cheaper to stay out of trouble, than to get out of trouble. Don’t just look before you leap, discuss before you leap. Making sure that you have the information to keep yourself safe and protected is part of your divorce lawyer’s job.
- Be responsible and reasonable in your day-to-day dealings with your spouse, and avoid letting negative emotions make your choices for you.
- Consider alternate forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation or co-parental counseling. Your family law lawyer might be able to offer you suggestions and resources.
- Give some thought to which battles are worth fighting, and what you might be willing to give up in exchange for closure and peace of mind. Your divorce attorney can discuss this with you, and offer both suggestions and useful perspectives.