The signs were all there…those pesky “red flags” that I chose to ignore because I felt too stupid. I was too emotional. I was overwhelmed. I was afraid. I trusted him. He was so nice at our first meeting. He gave me tissues when I cried. He told me what a bad guy my husband was. He was so powerful.
The plaques on the wall were so impressive. He was also somewhat arrogant and dismissive of my concerns. He took a break for our meeting for almost ten minutes. He kept looking at the clock. His assistant interrupted us twice. As I handed over my soon to be maxed credit card, he quickly concluded our meeting. Things began well, but within a few months seemed to rapidly disintegrate.
My phone calls went unanswered, meetings were cancelled, and I began to frequently hear “we’ll get to those issues later.” As the case dragged out and questions went unanswered, I became upset, then angry, and eventually distraught. Six months had already passed. I had spent more than $20,000.00 and was nowhere closer to the end than the day I had started the process. I finally had a meeting, and things just got ugly. Now I’m in so deep with this guy and my case I don’t know what to do.
Sound familiar? Welcome to my world.
I hear this all the time, and the above is an extract of two stories told to me most recently by clients looking to retain new counsel. Is getting a new attorney the answer? Sometimes, but not always.
If you don’t learn how to avoid the problem at the inception, chances are that you will continue to have the same pitfalls as you did with your first attorney- and mind you, this is not a female versus male attorney thing. I have had the same story told to me above about female lawyers. Just how we often end up dating a man just like the one we divorced, same is true for your lawyer.
My goal here is to help you AVOID the scenario above, and believe me, you CAN. Here are a few things you MUST know:
First: Attorneys will be more respectful of you if you are confident, prepared and assert your expectations of him or her. While it is true that an attorney in divorce should be empathic and at times comforting, you do not want him or her to become your source of strength. You need to make sure that from the get go, your attorney treats you as his or her equal. This does not mean that you need to go charging into an office with a list in hand and attitude to match.
That will have just the opposite effect! It simply means to remain composed and be able to express what you need or would like see happen. It is okay that you do not know what your rights are or what you will get. For example, simply stating something like, “I don’t know what my rights are so I would like for you to explain my options” is perfect.
Second: Keep it all business in your first meeting. This is a job interview and YOU are the interviewer. Your divorce attorney is going to be a key member of your new divorce staff. The attorney does not need to hear all the gory details of why you are getting a divorce or why your husband is a jerk at the first meeting. That can come later. The purpose of your first meeting should be to get educated and determine whether you feel you can work with this person.
Third: Don’t get caught up in a promise. You should walk out of your lawyer’s office feeling calm and in control. You should not walk out of there all hyped up and excited at the prospect of all that he or she is going to do for you. Your lawyers should be low key about expectations and instead, focus on a plan and tell you your worst case scenario. Once you have heard all he or she has to say about your case you should then ask, “if my husband were here, what would you be telling him?” Tell the lawyer you want the truth.
Fourth: Understand what you sign up for. Every client should have a written retainer agreement and more importantly, understand what it says and means. You want to know what you will be billed for (yes, phone calls do and should count! sorry but you are paying for your lawyer’s time so use it wisely) and how much. You want to know who will work on your case. Often times in the case of large firms, you do not alway work with the partner that does the consultation. That is okay as long as you meet the attorney and like him or her. Ask to be introduced to the attorney(s) you will be assigned to.
Fifth: Don’t be afraid or intimidated by your own attorney. If you hired a bully to intimidate your husband you can bet at some point he will intimidate you.
Sixth: Communicate. Find out if you can use email and don’t over use it. Keep your message simple. If you have a question or feel you need a meeting, ask. Don’t use email, meetings or phone calls to rant about your husband, his lawyer, or the system. It’s just too expensive and after a while, your attorney will start to AVOID you.
Seventh: Assertive, not Agressive. Your lawyer is fighting your divorce battle. He is dealing with your ex and his lawyer. This is not an easy job. He does not need to be fighting with you as well. The same goes for you. If you make your attorney aware that you are involved in the case, are participating and not just making demands, he or she will know that you expect results.
Eighth: Speak Up Early. If you are unhappy with ANY part of the represenation, speak up sooner than later. As the example above states, generally you get a feeling at the beginning that something is off. If however you simply after time start having issues, you need to address them promptly. You can directly tell your lawyer that perhaps the two of you are not a fit, that there seems to be a change in the relationship or that you would like to see how the two of you can get on track. If the lawyer is serious about you and your case, he or she will make the adjustment. If not, it’s time to…
Ninth: Move on. If you get to the point that you hate your lawyer it is definitely time to move on. That won’t be easy and could be costly but it is well worth it for both of you.
Tough but true. I hear it first hand from clients and colleagues alike.
When you get to the point that you have to fire your divorce lawyer, consider asking for at least a partial refund.
I would have, after way too many mistakes that were clearly the fault of inattention to detail, but she then put a friend on my case, an attorney who was hireed after I retained my lawyer.
Now I feel uncomfortable getting into a fight with my lawyer. I wish I had dumped her 2 months into the case, when the signs were there that she would be impossible to reach (I did consider firing her, and would have if our town wasn’t so small that she was the only full-time divorce lawyer).
But if your lawyer screws up, ask for money back. They’d rather give money back than get sued and have their malpractice rates go up.