Are you getting ready to speak with an attorney regarding a divorce in Texas? Often, I find that potential clients who come into my office are unsure of how to prepare for such a consultation or even what questions to ask in a consultation. A little bit of preparation goes a long way in helping you to determine if the attorney sitting across the table is the right one for you.
Scheduling the Divorce Consultation
For our purposes, let’s assume you have found one or more attorneys you wish to meet with regarding filing for divorce in Houston or a surrounding county. When you call the attorney’s office, you may speak with a staff member or the attorney themselves. This often depends on the practice in that particular office or the availability of the attorney at that moment. If you happen to reach the attorney during your phone call, keep in mind that they are usually very busy at that time. While most attorneys are happy to answer basic questions about themselves during that call, it is best to reserve questions about your case or Texas divorce law in general for your consultation.
Also, keep in mind that attorneys generally keep normal business hours. For most law offices in Houston, it is normal to maintain business hours Monday through Friday from around 8:00am to 5:00pm. If you also happen to work normal business hours, be prepared to either take some time off from your job to visit with the attorney or try to schedule a consultation during your lunch hour. I often meet with clients during their lunch time, as many of my clients work in the Galleria area of Houston, which is where my office is located.
Also, you may want to ask about directions to the office, as well as information about parking. For example, is there a parking garage attached to the office building? Is the parking free, or is there a fee? How much should you expect to pay for parking, and should you bring cash for parking instead of relying on the garage attendant accepting credit cards? All of this may sound basic, but it will assist you in making the appointment move as smoothly as possible. For example, our office building has a parking garage attached to the back of the building, and the parking is free.
Finally, you will need to know whether the attorney charges for a consultation or whether it will be free. Sometimes, it will depend on the purpose of the consultation.
Preparing for the Divorce Consultation
Many attorneys will ask you to complete one or more forms before you arrive for the consultation. This assists the attorney in maximizing the amount of time the attorney has with you to answer your questions and tell you about the process of obtaining a divorce in Texas. You may also be asked to bring a number of documents with you. Such documents may include the following:
- Income tax returns for you and your spouse for the last two years
- Paycheck stubs for you and your spouse for the last three pay periods
- If you have been served with a divorce petition, a copy of all paperwork served on you
- If you have received an e-mail or letter from your spouse’s attorney, a copy of that correspondence
In addition, the attorney needs to know what your goals for the divorce may be. That can be a difficult question to answer, particularly because you may be unsure of what you may be entitled to under Texas law. Don’t worry about the legal terms involved – focus more on the practical result. Instead of coming into the consultation saying, “I want full custody of my child.”, you may instead want to advise the attorney, “I want to ensure that my child stays with me most of the time, with the other parent getting time on occasional weekends.” That second statement tells the attorney much more than the first statement, for reasons explained in this prior blog post about “full custody”. If need be, take notes about your goals before the consultation and bring those notes with you.
Finally, if you have specific questions you want to ask the attorney, write those down as soon as you think of them. Please be mindful of the amount of time you have scheduled with the attorney, whether only a half-hour or an entire hour. Make the best use of your time and stick to questions that you really need answered right away.
During the Divorce Consultation
In addition to ensuring that you bring all of your documents and notes as described above, ensure you give yourself enough time to get to the attorneys office. An attorney’s time is valuable, as is your time. You should expect your attorney to be ready to meet with you at the time you scheduled for your consultation. At the same time, the attorney is going to expect you to be ready to meet with him or her once the time for the appointment has arrived. If you are concerned that you may have difficulty finding the building, give yourself even more time to arrive and find the office.
Once you arrive, and sit down with the attorney, you will have an opportunity to ask questions about your case, about the attorney, and about the divorce process. Obviously, potential clients often ask attorneys about their experience, or about their practice. If you live in or near a major metropolitan area, you can often find attorneys who practice exclusively in the area of family law (which includes divorce and child custody). It is important to know what percentage of time an attorney spends on cases similar to yours. Retaining an attorney with 30 or 40 years of experience does little good if less than 10% of that attorney’s practice is focused on family law. You want someone who has assisted numerous clients with issues similar to yours.
Also, you need to know how familiar the attorney is with the judges in the county in which you intend to file. Better yet, if you have been served with a divorce petition and know which court you’re in, find out how often that attorney has practiced in front of that judge. Judges in family law cases are given wide discretion as to how they may rule on many issues, including determining the residence of a child , possession schedules, and marital property division. An experienced divorce attorney will be familiar with the judge and their basic philosophy about these issues.
Finally, and most importantly, you must determine for yourself how comfortable you are with the attorney and whether you can trust that attorney with your case. If you have little to no confidence in that attorney’s judgment and ability, you will not be able to take full advantage of what that attorney may have to offer. Even if you have the best divorce attorney in the entire city, that attorney’s skills matter little if you’re not willing to accept or trust their advice.
After the Divorce Consultation
At the end of the consultation, an attorney may offer to provide you with a draft of a fee agreement to review and sign. It is never a good idea to hire an attorney for the first time without some form of written fee agreement describing the financial arrangement. You want to ensure you know what you will be charged for the attorney’s time and how it will be billed. Most attorneys today bill their time on an hourly basis in six-minute (one-tenth of an hour) increments. Fewer still may bill in fifteen minute (one quarter of an hour) increments. Make sure you understand how you will be charged for phone calls and e-mails under such a system. If you’re not careful, you may incur substantial fees by repeatedly calling and e-mailing your attorney every day. Most attorneys are happy to suggest ways to keep your fees low, such as ensuring you write down your questions and concerns and then only calling or e-mailing the attorney once you have a number of those questions ready.
Also be prepared to pay a retainer (sometimes also called an “advanced fee”). This retainer or fee is kept in the attorney’s trust account and is not earned by the attorney until they perform work on your case and issue an invoice for payment of services and expenses incurred. If the retainer is exhausted, you will likely need to pay an additional retainer. Some firms even require you to replenish the retainer with each invoice (also known as an “evergreen retainer”). Ensure you understand your financial obligations before signing any fee agreements.
Finally, if you need additional time to consider whether to hire the attorney, make sure you have the attorney’s business card. Also, make notes to yourself during the consultation or immediately after the consultation to ensure you recall your impressions of that specific attorney as well as pertinent information about their fees, experience and practice. That will come in handy later when you’re ready to pick an attorney.