Having practiced family law for the past twenty-two plus years I have come to appreciate how agonizing the first consultation with your divorce lawyer can be. The anticipation of the meeting alone may cause great stress and anxiety, no matter the cause of the marital breakdown, or how much a client may want the divorce.
So, what should you do and say to your divorce attorney when you first meet? It sounds like a simple question, but meeting with a complete stranger to discuss the shortcomings of your marriage is often easier said than done.
I try to soften the mood just a little with a bit of humor when I first meet with a potential client. I will ask “how are you today?” If I get a bit of a deer in the headlights look, which happens quite a lot when I ask this question, I will answer it for the client by saying something like, “Well, I am sitting in a divorce lawyer’s office, how do you think I am doing?” That small bit of acknowledgment of the client’s feelings relaxes the client if even just a little. That small acknowledgment of the anxiety the client is feeling can go a long way to further a candid dialogue. If your lawyer doesn’t offer an ice – breaker, and you are anxious, tell him or her that you are nervous. Acknowledge that the conversation may be awkward, or that your frame of mind is such that you may not absorb all of the information coming at you during the initial consultation. Getting it out of your mind and out into the open is cathartic.
Above all else don’t keep secrets from your lawyer. Believe it or not, this is a common mistake. It is understandable. You may cringe at the thought of describing the intricacies of your marital relationship and family dysfunction to a person you just met a few minutes ago. To the extent that is it a consolation to you, know that I have heard what you are about to tell me before, probably more than once. Although each case is unique, there are some familiar patterns in divorce work. And, as much as the situation may be novel and embarrassing to you, it is probably not novel to the lawyer and he, or she, should not be judging the situation in any event.
What information should you have with you? That varies from lawyer to lawyer. Some like to have a list of items for you to bring with you to the initial consultation. I usually don’t provide such a list.
The initial consultation is for the client and the lawyer to get to know one another, go over the issues that are at play in your particular situation, and talk about the process to come, including lawyer retainers and fees. That meeting will easily take an hour. So, I have found that the client trundling in with a smattering of documents isn’t that helpful in the initial consultation.
But, you should have some basic information at hand, and if documents help in that regard, then take them with you, or better, yet, make some notes for yourself. Your notes should include the issues that are important to you – write them down, lest you forget to mention one or more of them.
You should be prepared to discuss a basic thumbnail of your finances. How much money does each person earn? What are the household and family expenses? What assets do you have, and what is the ballpark equitable, or net value, of those assets? How much debt is there?
Family biometrics will be part of the conversation. You may not actually need notes to know dates of birth of parents and children, but some people do and if you are one of those people, especially because you are nervous, jot them down. Are there any special circumstances or needs of a child
Finally, but most importantly, you should absolutely, positively let your lawyer know if there are any safety concerns in your household. This is a biggie for people who suffer abuse who often downplay the situation because minimization has become their way to cope day to day.
The initial consultation with your divorce lawyer is not the time to minimize safety concerns. Tell your attorney what he or she should know about you and your family circumstances.