Secrets of a divorce attorney: Why a free consultation isn’t worth the money

I came across an article recently that purported to give advice on how to select a divorce attorney.  One of the bits of advice was that most “reputable” attorneys will offer a free consultation.  I was stunned to hear this, as I think precisely the opposite!  The free consultation from the divorce attorney is a loss leader, which means that it’s free because the attorney is looking for the potential client to pay the big bucks at the end of the consultation. In addition, the attorney doesn’t offer anything of value to the potential client during the free consultation.

Remember, you get what you pay for!

Many attorneys offer a free or reduced-cost consultation and the appointment goes like this: the potential client arrives and fills out some paperwork, finishing after about 10-15 minutes.  Then s/he waits another 5-10 minutes, so the actual appointment starts at least 15 minutes into the alloted “hour.”  The attorney, naturally, want to know what’s going on, so the potential client spends at least 20-30 minutes – often this is closer to 45 minutes – telling their “story” to the attorney.  So, at this point, it’s been 45 minutes to an hour, and the attorney has yet to *do* anything but sit and listen.  At the end of the consultation, the attorney says, well, yes. I can help you with that.  And the retainer will be $10,000.  Or $5,000.  Or $20,000.  So the potential client has paid nothing to get nothing but a very high retainer quote, and the client has (unless s/he has the money) wasted an hour or so of time.

Is that worth it?  Are these the practices of a “reputable” attorney?

A paid consultation can be more worthwhile, as they tend to be a little longer and involve more attorney advice and counsel.  Often, the intake sheet is sent in advance, and the “hour” spent is really an hour.

Another option is our approach: We ask for your story ahead of time (!) in the form of documents, email, faxes, a letter, etc., send & have you fill out the intake form in advance, and we spend most of the full hour giving YOU real advice that you can use now.  Yes, the consultation costs, but you get what you pay for.

Which would you choose?

Preliminary Considerations in California Divorce

There are a lot of things that an attorney or coach can help you with in your divorce, custody, paternity or support case. One thing, however, that they cannot assist you with is making the decision. YOU have to decide if you want to take the step to file your case.

What we can help you out with is by giving you information about what can and will happen if you DO file. We can tell you about how the process will go, potential pitfalls, and possible outcomes. We can talk to you about procedures, strategy, and pros and cons. If you have proper information specific to your situation, then you can make an INFORMED decision.

Sometimes the worst thing you can do is to dive into something you know nothing about. I would strongly encourage someone even thinking about a family law case to consult with an attorney. It does not cost more than a few hundred dollars, and will be worth every penny if it allows you to move forward with eyes open. Be sure you bring a list of questions, and make sure you include overall, or total, cost as one of your questions. Hiring an attorney can cost $10,000 to start, and many tens (if not hundreds) of thousands to complete. Your finances and what you spend on assistance in your case (and how!) can be a huge consideration that is often overlooked at the outset of a case.

In a court case, any court case, knowledge is power. There’s a lot of information out there, so learn how to find accurate and helpful information and use it.

Protecting your finances in a California separation or divorce

One of the most difficult aspects of divorce is the financial aspect.  Suddenly, two households need to be maintained with the same income as what maintained one household before the separation.  In addition, there are court filing fees, attorney fees, expenses for getting a new home and new ‘stuff,’ and many hidden expenses, such as the expense for taking time off work for court hearings, expenses in increased insurance, for example, and the list goes on.

One of the ways to protect yourself is to talk to both an attorney and a financial advisor.  Both should be qualified and be working to help you and not trying to get more money out of you.  If you educate yourself on the legal process and financial planning, you can make better decisions throughout the process. This will help you in the long run.

In addition, make sure you change the beneficiaries on your life insurance, retirements, and other payable-on-death accounts.  Do you really want your ex getting your money? Similarly, update your estate plan to reflect your new circumstances. Note, however, that in California, once the Petition has been filed and served, you may not change your estate plan during the divorce/separation action without permission from your spouse or a court order.

Finally, do an assessment of what you have.  Assemble your life insurance, bank/stock account documents, retirement accounts, debts, etc., and put them all in one place.  Knowing what you have can be the first step in determining where you’re going and how to get there.

Is it helpful or harmful that your lawyer knows your ex’s lawyer in California divorce?

A divorce attorney who works for a time in one place gets to know the other attorneys in the area & how they operate.  In one county where I practiced for several years almost exclusively, I knew who was a pushover, who was sharp as a tack, who would cave right before trial, who was sneaky, who I could trust, and who would mean the case would cost double or triple what I expected.  Often, my clients would ask about the other lawyer, and I would share what I knew.

Often, too, my clients would express dismay, frustration and sometimes even anger that I knew and was friendly with the other lawyer.  They thought it would make me “softer” and not fight as hard for them.  They thought my friendship came “above” my responsibilities to them as a client.  It’s unfortunate that I was unable to convince them of how very wrong they were.  I am not the only one who has experienced this, and this article describes well what I am explaining here.

First, they never understood that I take my job and my responsibility to vigorously advocate for my clients very seriously.  Regardless of who is opposing me, I am going to fight for my client in the same way.  I operate by acting in my client’s best interests, and we discuss our strategy before every case.  I will be more cautious when working with someone I can’t trust, but my behavior does not change markedly from case to case and client to client.  Obviously, when pushed I will push back and I can – and will – get down in the trenches and fight when appropriate.  But in many cases this is not necessary and serves only to escalate the cost of the case.

Second, by knowing my opposing counsel, I know what to expect from them, good or bad.  When it’s a friend of mine, I can expect that they won’t blindside me or screw me over.  That helps my client, helps the case, and keeps costs down.

Similarly, my friends trust me as well, so they are more likely to work more easily with me and, as a consequence, work with their client to make the case more reasonable.  In cases with lawyers I am friendly with, there’s more of an attitude of “trust but verify” – we can agree on things in principle, while proof is in process.  With other lawyers, we may need to more through expensive discovery before we can even sit down to start to discuss the issues.  While it may seem that time cools the fires of anger, resentment and vengefulness, it is often the opposite. The longer the case drags on, the harder it can be to settle.

So, which would you prefer?  I would want an attorney who knew my opposing counsel well, and was friendly with them.

Need advice now? Schedule an appointment online, or call us at 925.307.6543.

How to save money in California divorce

Divorce can be very expensive.  Not only are you separating households, now working with the same funds but supporting two homes (and two rents/mortgages, two sets of utilities, expenses of duplicate furniture, etc…), but you may be taking time off work for court hearings, spending money on filing fees, and – of course – hiring a lawyer.  And lawyers?  Can be very expensive.

I do what I can to keep the costs down for my divorcing clients, from offering flexible options for payment (no, not monthly payments but I generally try to “break down” the case into more financially-manageable pieces for the client), family law coaching, and divorce mediation, but the cost is not entirely under my control.  What my clients do – or don’t do – essentially drives the path and cost of the divorce.  So, regardless of whether you have an attorney or not, here are some ways to keep the costs of your divorce down:

  1. Manage your emotions.  Divorce is incredibly difficult even in the best of circumstances.  It is likely that you have some strong emotions around it.  But the court and legal process generally will not be concerned about these emotions, and the more  you bring them into your divorce, the more you will likely pay.  Whether it’s spending excessive time with your attorney discussing the emotional issues or pursuing a losing issue because of an emotional attachment, emotions can bankrupt you when they take center stage in your divorce.
  2. Get professional help. As a part of managing your emotions, get the support you need for them by finding qualified mental health professionals to help you through it.  Your lawyer, your family, and your friends will be a great support during this time, but do not mistake any of them as qualified advice helping you through the roller coaster of emotions in divorce.  Find a therapist if you need one.
  3. Get – and get rid of – qualified professional help when appropriate.  Hire professionals who are going to work with you, for you, and who are on the same page as you.  If you feel like your lawyer doesn’t care, or is gouging you, or won’t pay attention to you or return your calls, then get rid of him/her.  Your divorce is yours, and you should have legal counsel that you feel comfortable with, who understands what is important to you, and who is reasonable and professional about fees.  Same with your therapist.
  4. Play fair.  The court and legal process in California has no patience for bids for revenge.  Mud-slinging and nasty declarations for the purpose of hurting the other party can not only rebound and hurt you, but can cost you unbelievable amounts of money.  They also drag on the process, increase the hostility between you and your spouse, and ultimately hurt your children.

Secrets of winning child custody in California

I have many clients that come into my office and say they “want custody” of their children.  What does this mean in a California divorce or paternity case? Most often, it doesn’t mean what the client thinks it means.

In California, there are two kinds of custody: physical and legal.  Physical custody involves where your children live.  If they live with both parents, as in most cases, then custody is shared jointly.  In the case where one parent is not involved at all with the children or has domestic violence or substance abuse issues, then one parent may have sole physical custody.  The norm is shared joint physical custody.  Legal custody involves which parent has the right to make the decisions about your children’s health, education and welfare.  Again, this is generally joint except in the instances mentioned above.

What most clients are talking about when they say they want custody is the parenting plan.  This is the schedule of when your children will be with which parent.  I am often asked what a “normal” schedule is, but the reality is that schedules vary as much people do!  The important part of creating a parenting plan is to keep your children’s needs in the forefront of your mind.  They are adjusting, too, and the transition is difficult on everyone.

Second, be reasonable.  You may despise your ex, but that doesn’t give you the right to cut him or her out of your children’s lives – they remain a parent even though they are no longer your spouse.  A judge will frown on an unreasonable request made for no good reason.

Third, pick your battles.  Remember the adjustment period?  Well, that often translates into dropping grades, acting out, misbehaving, sleep problems, and overall a difficult mood or behavior from your children.  This doesn’t mean it’s all your ex’s fault, and it’s not your fault, either.  It’s just a natural part of the process.  Now, if your spouse is acting inappropriately, such as not properly feeding or dressing/grooming your children before school or harming them, then you should see the judge immediately.  But normal acting out in a divorce is, well, normal.

Finally, remember that it will pass.  At some point the custody fight will end and you will settle into a routine.  I mean, you can fight until your children are 18, but do you really have the time, money and energy to do that to yourself and to your children?  The sooner you can get to that normalcy, the better for everyone.

Thinking of filing for divorce? Don’t do it before you read this!

I always tell my clients that getting a divorce generally will take much longer than you anticipate and will be much more expensive than you’d like.  In most cases, this is true, regardless of how hard we work to make it untrue.  It is a complex process involving a great deal of information that must be disclosed, but when you add to that the emotional component that is almost always present, the process can seem unmanageable.  One of the ways to make the process easier – from the very beginning to the very end – is to know and understand in advance what’s going to happen, what the options are, and how the general process can play out.  Too many people run out and file for divorce without really understanding what that means in terms of procedure, process, timing, strategy, and so on.  One of the best things you can do in your divorce is to become as educated as you can regarding the process.  Do some internet research, buy some books, sign up for a free e-course, and/or consult with an attorney or several.  The more you understand about the process, the rules, and what you can do NOW to make the process easier later, the higher chance you have to maintain your sanity in the craziness that’s bound to come.  Finally, consulting with a compassionate, experienced professional can help, too, because it’s part of their job to ensure you understand everything that’s coming your way in the divorce.