1. How much of your practice is devoted to family law?

Many general practitioners include some divorce cases in their files.  There is nothing wrong with that, but often the divorces rank among the most disagreeable work in their caseload.   A lawyer who devotes most or all of his or her practice to family law is making a commitment to wrestling with the difficulties that the practice of family law presents.  He or she also is likely to have more experience in handling cases in any given jurisdiction as well as a good working relationship with his or her fellow members of the family law bar.  There are few areas of the law where the saying “what goes around comes around”  is more likely to be true.  The knowledge that a fellow lawyer is likely to appear in a case in the future means that family lawyers as a whole will try to assist each other and extend courtesies to each other during litigation.  This can save money and stress during the process of litigation and settlement.

2.  How can you help me?

This question is valuable not for the actual content of the answer but for what the content implies.  If the lawyer answers the question with a very black and white, “I can fix everything” kind of answer,  you should be wondering.  No family lawyer in an initial meeting knows the answers.  A big part of that is due to the fact that he or she has no information about the other side yet.  The personalities as well as the facts of the case will become clear in time but not before any attorney’s initial meeting with a client.

3.  How do your fees work?

You will no doubt want to know how much your divorce will cost.  Unless your lawyer offers a flat fee for the entire case, there is never a way to tell how much a divorce will cost.  What you are entitled to know is how the lawyer charges.  In addition to hourly rates, you may want to ask if there are minimum billing charges for certain types of work and whether other people in the firm will be billing their time or services.   You can also ask about retainer fees and payment schedules for future charges.  Above all you want to know that you will understand what it is you are paying for.  Lawyers do a lot of work that is quite honestly thinking, and it is odd as a non-lawyer to think about paying someone to think, because it doesn’t look like work as many know it, but that’s where all the advice you will value comes from.  So when you see a letter that is three paragraphs long and your lawyer charges you for a half-hour, he or she is charging not for slow typing, but for quick thinking.

4.  My biggest worry is ____________.  Will the law be able to address that?

This is another trick question for the lawyer.  A seasoned family lawyer knows that the law only goes so far in helping people going through a divorce.  There are practical issues that the law simply can not or will not address, or it may address them only in a limited fashion.  A client once asked me if it was in her best interest to get a better job because it would mean she would get less child support.  I answered of course it was because she was placing herself into a better position to earn more and to further her earnings ability in the future.  Her spouse’s income was something she had no control over.  In that case the legal situation was a net loss (less child support) but the practical situation was all win.

5.  How can I best communicate with you?

The single biggest complaint leveled at lawyers is that they don’t return phone calls promptly.  A lawyer should have a communications policy.  There are a lot of possible ways to communicate with a lawyer and the lawyer should have preferences and expectations and be able to provide the client with options.  The worst thing any client can do is call and leave a message merely to “call me.”  I do not use text messaging to communicate with clients and I do not like using e-mail either.  Phone calls are scheduled when possible so that both me and the client know to be available with information and full concentration.  A lawyer’s assistant should be trained to take detailed messages to assist the lawyer in responding to the client.  Clients should be kept “in the loop” at all times so that they never have to wonder what is happening on their matter.  If the lawyer you are interviewing does not have a clear sense of how communication flows in his or her office it may be a cause for concern.