According to www.divorcenet.com, there are ten questions that a client should ask their prospective divorce attorney. As the founder and managing partner of Robertson + Associates, I thought I would take a few minutes and answer them for you.
1. Do you specialize in divorces, or are divorces just a part of your practice? Are you a certified family law specialist? We do not close loans, we do not file bankruptcies, we do not chase ambulances, we do not bill insurance companies- all we do is family law all day every day. It is all we have ever done and all we will ever do. Although we would prefer it if you can avoid your divorce, marital dissolution is the biggest part of our family law only practice.
Although Mississippi does not have a system to recognize practice area specialists, I am Board Certified in Family Law by the National Board of Trial Advocacy, a national organization.
2. What is your strategy for my case? How long will it take to resolve my case? At R+A, we are goal centered. At the very first meeting, we put your goals and a plan of action in writing- every time. This is something many well-intentioned lawyers miss. If you can’t yet articulate your goals, we explain your legal options and guide you through the process of identifying your destination- creating a roadmap to get there. Sometimes, based on circumstances that we cannot control, we have to refine our initial strategy, but that is part of the process. We do not take a rigid approach to helping people. We treat you like a person, not a file number.
How long it will take to resolve your case is based on many variable factors, including the size of your estate, whether or not you have children, whether or not custody is a real issue, the judge to whom your case is assigned, the county in which you live, the attorney for your spouse, whether or not the divorce is contested and several other factors, most of which you have no control over. The shortest amount of time that a couple can get a divorce in Mississippi is sixty (60) days from the date that the Complaint for Divorce is filed. Realistically, irreconcilable differences cases take several months to complete, while a divorce on fault grounds can take up to and over a year.
3. How long do you take to return phone calls? How do I get a hold of you if there is an emergency? What do you consider to be an emergency? We return phone calls within twenty-four hours. If we cannot call you back personally, we have another team member familiar with your case get back in touch with you. If there is an emergency and my office cannot reach me, you may call me on my cell phone or at my home. If you do not have these numbers, ask me for them and I will give them to you.
An emergency exists when someone dies, gets seriously injured, or gets arrested. If the event that transpires is one of life-altering proportion, it is expected and appreciated when you call. I wrote a blog article about calling your divorce attorney after hours that you can read here.
4. Will anyone else in your office be working on my case? What experience do they have? Can I meet them? At R+A, we take a team approach. Most of the time, your case will be assigned to two attorneys, but you will have one primary source of contact with our office. You will obviously meet the attorneys that are assigned to your case, usually at your initial consultation, but we are such a small group at R+A, you will have some level of contact with everyone. You can meet our team and find out about their experience here.
5. How will you charge me? What is your hourly rate? Do you charge for the time I spend with other lawyers, with paralegals, and/or with secretaries? If so, at what rate? What is your retainer up front?
We are essentially paid two ways. Our standard method is through the billable hour. Basically, the client is charged for the time expended on the case by all billing professionals at an hourly rate that will vary based upon experience and level of expertise. My hourly rate is $300.00 per hour. All time is billed in 15 minute increments. We will require a retainer, which is a deposit into our trust account that will be used to pay for the time and expenses on your case. Think of it like a pre-paid calling card. You will set up an account with R+A and your bill will be paid from that account. When the retainer has a zero balance, you will be asked to pay the amount not covered by your deposit and replenish the retainer. It is common for a portion of the initial retainer to be non-refundable, because when we agree to work with you, we are also agreeing to forego representing your opponent and possibly other people. This is the most widely accepted billing method across the profession.
A newer, simpler way we charge is through a flat fee. Essentially, the client pays one fee for a defined amount of service for a defined amount of time. If circumstances arise that were not initially anticipated or they were anticipated but not included in the fee, new services are defined and additional payment is required. There are no retainers. You pay one fee for a service and that’s it. Sometimes these can be paid in installments.
6. What costs other than your own do you expect will be involved (for example, for private investigators, forensic accountants, physicians, and/or psychologists), and how will you charge me for them?
On occasion, we have to employ other professionals to work on your case. Our employment contract explains that we do not do this without you being very actively involved in the process. We prefer that you work out your payment considerations with the third-party professional directly, but on occasion, if confidentiality is an issue, we can service the accounts through our office and bill you for their service. If your case is being billed on our standard employment agreement, you will be billed for the time we spend interacting with the professional. If your case is being handled under a flat fee arrangement, the costs of interacting with the professional will probably be included, unless it was outside of the scope of our initial engagement.
7. What’s your estimate of the total cost to me of this divorce?
If you sign up on our flat fee arrangement, the price you are quoted is the total fee unless there is a change in circumstances requiring a “change order.” If your case is being billed based upon our standard hourly rate contract, I will do the best I can to estimate expenses, but basically the more work we have to do to resolve your case, the more it will cost.
8. Do you allow me to negotiate directly with my spouse? How can I keep the cost of my divorce down? Are there tasks that I can do myself to cut down on the amount you will charge me?
In most circumstances, we encourage you to negotiate with your spouse. Obviously, if you are a victim of abuse or are being threatened or intimidated by your spouse, it is not going to be in your best interest to negotiate except through counsel.
There are several ways you can keep your divorce costs down. One way is to save your non-pressing questions and address them all at once. Another way to keep costs down is to remember the role of your attorney. Your attorney’s job is to give you legal advice. When you are emotional, and you will be emotional, it is probably better to talk to a friend, family member, pastor or counselor. If you have routine questions or need to take care of ancillary issues, it is best to work with a staff member or the junior attorney on your legal team.
The biggest key in keeping down costs is to understand how you are being charged. There are certainly some tasks that you can complete yourself that will save you money such as gathering documents, documenting your story, working with third-party professionals and other assignments that do not necessarily require any particular legal knowledge to complete. It is usually not best for you to attempt to draft legal documents yourself, even if you have legal experience.
9. Based on what you know about my case, how would you predict a judge would rule on it?
This is a very fair question. I spend most of my day trying to predict how judges will rule. In Mississippi, Chancellors are given a wide range of judicial discretion. For so long as what they do is supported by substantial evidence, an appellate court will not disturb their findings. While I believe that most chancellors attempt to accomplish equity and decide cases as close to the middle as they can (making both parties equally unhappy), very often it appears that the husband or the wife was the “winner”- as if there is such a thing in divorce. But because of the way that our legislators have structured our divorce system, the person that holds the “divorce card” can bargain for a settlement that is well beyond what a judge would do properly following the law. This can be justice or injustice, depending on who you represent. You can read more about the divorce card here.
10. What can you do to help me understand the tax effect of the decisions I will have to make?
While we make suggestions concerning the tax consequences of divorce, and I have spoken at CLE seminars on the subject, we find it is best for you to receive outside help with the tax consequences of any proposed settlement, and we can recommend a Trusted Professional who specializing in taxation.
Craig Robertson is a divorce attorney practicing throughout Mississippi.