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What to expect from your family law attorney

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How do I get started with a family lawyer?
A lawyer might talk to you briefly over the telephone to introduce himself and get a sense of what kind of service you need, and may offer to schedule an initial paid consultation in his office. Be sure to ask the lawyer whether there is a fixed fee for the meeting, so you will know beforehand what you are getting into.

Don’t hesitate to call more than one divorce lawyer before you set up a meeting, since this is your opportunity to learn how different family law offices might handle your calls in days to come. Any law office worth retaining will handle your call professionally and courteously.

The first meeting with a lawyer is your chance to get important information about his family law practice and about your own legal situation, and to decide whether this lawyer is the one who can do the job for you. Lawyers are just like anyone else; some are easier to get along with than others, and some have better skills and experience. As in any new relationship, “gut feeling” can be very important. As you discuss your situation and listen to how the lawyer responds to your concerns, think about the person sitting across from you. Does he try to put you at ease in his office? Does he listen to what you have to say? Does he seem to understand what you are dealing with? Does his advice make sense? If he cannot answer a question, will he explain why? Is this someone you feel you can trust during this difficult period of your life?

Although one meeting can’t give you every answer to every question, by the time it is over you should have a good understanding of where you stand, what your choices are, what might happen next, and how you can protect yourself.

What should I expect from my family lawyer?
INFORMATION. Your lawyer should give you the information you need to understand your options. A good lawyer can give you the benefit of many people’s experiences, pointing out strengths and pitfalls, and making suggestions that might help you get what you need without having to fight. He will listen carefully to your concerns, and offer meaningful perspectives.

DILIGENCE. Your lawyer will stay on top of your case, meet deadlines, and always will be prepared when he appears in court. He will prepare you for your role in the case, and will make the most of every opportunity.

COMMUNICATION. Your telephone calls will be returned with reasonable promptness, and your lawyer will keep you informed of important developments in your case. He will offer you clear answers to your questions, in plain English.

COURTESY AND RESPECT. A good lawyer will treat you as a valued client, and will conduct himself professionally toward everyone connected with your case. Lawyers who sacrifice standards of decency in the name of zealous representation can actually make things worse for their own clients by creating unnecessary fights. That might be good for the lawyer who charges by the hour, but not necessarily for the one who is paying the bill.

CANDOR. A lawyer who doesn’t “give it to you straight” isn’t doing you much good. If you don’t know the true picture of your situation as your lawyer sees it, you can’t take it into account when you make decisions. A good lawyer may not always have good news for you, but you will always know what he thinks about your situation.

CONFIDENTIALITY. You can feel comfortable speaking to your lawyer freely, although you should never expect him to help you hide assets or permit perjury.

What shouldn’t I expect from my family lawyer?
All licensed Pennsylvania lawyers are required to conform to a professional code of ethics that is enforced by the Disciplinary Board of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court. A good lawyer values a solid reputation for ethical conduct among colleagues and judges, and that reputation is an asset to his clients. A lawyer’s reputation is only ever as good as the faith he keeps today. When you retain a lawyer, don’t expect a “mouthpiece,” television-style courtroom drama, or a “whatever I can get away with” attitude. A good lawyer’s effectiveness lies in the good advice he offers and his skillful handling of your case, not in undirected aggression and expensive bluster. Other things not to expect a good lawyer to do:

• Hide your income and assets.
• Lie to his opponent or to the court, or permit you to do so.
• Tolerate disrespectful conduct, or turn a blind eye toward it.
• Escalate or manufacture a fight where none need occur.
• Make important case decisions without discussing them with you in advance.
• Create or escalate a fight for its own sake.
• Indulge in name-calling contests with the other side at your expense.
• Extend credit to you in lieu of prompt payment.

Perhaps most important of all, never expect your lawyer to take sole responsibility for your case like the mechanic who keeps your car on the road. You are an essential part of the litigation process. You are facing some of the most important life choices you may ever have to make, both for you and for your children; never surrender them to someone else.

What will my lawyer expect from me?
CANDOR. There is no such thing as a perfect case, and no one leads a perfect life. If your lawyer doesn’t know about the skeletons in your closet, he won’t be prepared when your spouse throws the door wide open to put them on display! It is always better for your lawyer to find out about the challenges he will face from you in his office, rather than from your spouse in a courtroom.

FOLLOW HIS ADVICE. Your lawyer offers you the benefit of his education and experience, an outside perspective, a cool head and the experiences of other people who faced what you are going through. He knows that it is never enough to be right or to deserve justice, and that there are some forms of vindication that no judge can ever deliver. He knows what judges want to see (and don’t want to see!), and how they are likely to view what you say and do. While he can never guarantee you favorable results, he can suggest approaches that might help guide you around the pitfalls that are common to family law cases, and help you to make the most of the strong points of your case.

RESPECT, COURTESY AND COMMON SENSE. At a time in your life when you might be least able to maintain a cool head, it is all the more important that you do so. Even spouses who never wanted to fight can find themselves in foxholes because of a moment’s passionate anger. You can’t control your spouse’s actions, but you can – and must – keep control over yourself and your conduct. If you act like you are being recorded every time you deal with your spouse, and are prepared to answer for every decision you make, you will never have to fear the truth. Your lawyer can be your sword-and-shield, or he can be your broom-and-dustpan; your conduct can make all the difference.

PAY ATTENTION, AND STAY IN TOUCH. Stay involved in your case, and be your lawyer’s active partner. Open, read and (if necessary) respond promptly to what he sends you. Return his phone calls. Keep him up to date on developments that may affect your case.

GIVE HIM WHAT HE ASKS FOR. As your case moves forward, your lawyer will probably ask you for a variety of information and documents, or you may have to provide them to your spouse as part of the litigation process. Be diligent in responding to these requests, and discuss any concerns or questions as early as possible.

FOLLOW COURT ORDERS. Unless your lawyer tells you differently, always follow court orders. Failure to do so can result in penalties that range from frustrating to crippling, depending on the nature of the violation.

Who will be working on my case?
When you retain a family lawyer, you are also retaining the entire law office. Law firms often distribute their caseloads in-house. Senior lawyers often assign case work, or even whole cases, to associates. Some family law firms adopt a “team” approach to their caseloads, coordinating their efforts to ensure that work is handled efficiently. Routine tasks such as research and document preparation are often assigned to associates or support staff members. This is normal, and when properly managed it allows a law firm to streamline its function by assigning tasks to the most qualified and/or lowest-cost person capable of handling the job properly. Also, lawyers often share each others’ workloads when one of them becomes overloaded, unavailable, or double-booked. The bottom line for you is that you are entitled to competent and informed representation. You are entitled to be kept informed about the progress of your case. If you become concerned at any time about how your case is being handled, you are entitled to an explanation.

How much is this going to cost me?
Sadly, there is no meaningful way to answer this very reasonable question unless the services you need have a fixed fee. Every case is unique, and the cost of legal services usually depends upon how much time the lawyer has to spend working for you. Lawyers usually break down time spent working on your case into tenths of an hour. For some family law services, minimum fees will apply. Like any other investment, legal services are most cost-effective when they offer a reasonable prospect of a good return, or when they are your best opportunity to prevent even greater damage. A good lawyer will take the cost of his own professional services into account when advising you about possible courses of action.

Lawyers usually work on retainer: you will make an advance payment to your lawyer to create a fund that he will draw against to pay himself as he earns the money. You will have to replenish this fund if it becomes too depleted, according to the terms of your written fee agreement. Do not expect your lawyer to work for you on credit. Unless your fee agreement says otherwise – and read it carefully! – retainers are usually refundable to the extent that they have not been earned by services rendered and expenses incurred.

There are some things you can do to keep your legal costs down, and to get the most “bang” for your legal buck:

• Take notes when you talk to your lawyer, so that you can avoid asking the same questions more than once.
• Keep your communications with your lawyer direct and to the point, without the false economy of cutting things so short that you prevent him from getting the information he needs, or from giving you the advice that you need.
• Whenever possible, communicate directly with your spouse rather than turning the job over to your lawyer. Sometimes, sadly, that simply is not possible.
• Become a clerk on your own case: promptly gather and organize any necessary information or records that your lawyer needs, and discuss with him what other “legwork” you might be able to do to keep your costs down.
• Call your lawyer to address potential problems before they happen, because it is usually cheaper to stay out of trouble, than to get out of trouble. Don’t just look before you leap, discuss before you leap. Making sure that you have the information to keep yourself safe and protected is part of your lawyer’s job.
• Be responsible and reasonable in your day-to-day dealings with your spouse, and avoid letting negative emotions make your choices for you. Why put bullets in a gun that is already aimed at you?
• Consider alternate forms of dispute resolution, such as mediation or co-parental counseling. Your lawyer might be able to offer you suggestions and resources.
• Give some thought to which battles are worth fighting, and what you might be willing to give up in exchange for closure and peace of mind. Your lawyer can discuss this with you, and offer both suggestions and useful perspectives.

If you need legal assistance with your divorce or family law matter in Southwestern Pennsylvania, call my office to set up a personal consultation with an experienced divorce and child custody lawyer, and to learn more about contested or uncontested divorce in Pennsylvania and how it affects you. Please do not comment anonymously, and do not post anything that you consider confidential.  We try to be responsive to commentary and questions, but know that posting here will not create an attorney/client relationship and that we will not offer legal advice via the Internet.

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