EP 185: Signs You Have a Good Divorce Attorney

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Thank you for listening! Find a transcript of this episode below.

The most important decisions you can make during the divorce process is choosing a good attorney and having a good attorney work for you and on behalf of you. One of the main questions I get with a lot of people is, is my attorney doing a good job? I have the fortune of working with attorneys, family law attorneys, seven days a week. I can tell you which attorneys are good and which are less good. Actually, even from time to time on the coaching calls, I will make a recommendation for an attorney if you happen to live in a city where I know an attorney, who is a good one. But that happens only on the coaching calls.

If you don’t have a good attorney yet and you’re looking for one, I’m going to record an episode on how to choose … another episode on how to choose an attorney. I already have lots in the archives. But I can also help, sometimes, on coaching calls, help you figure out, hey, who are the best two or three attorneys near you that can help you through your divorce process.

But the subject of today’s episode is for all of you who already have attorneys, are they doing a good job for you? What I want to go through is I want to give basically four characteristics that pretty much every great law firm, in general, but particularly during the divorce process, has when it comes to an attorney … and providing a good service. I want to go through these four things that you should be looking out for, and asking yourself if they apply to your attorney and to your case. If they don’t, you need to think hard about what the best way is to proceed for you.

So, here are the four things. The first is your attorney advocates on your behalf and creates a good game plan for your case. The second is that they provide responsive customer service. The third is that there are no surprise bills that come due for you. And the fourth is they help you through the case closing process. I’m going to jump in and discuss each one of these four things in a little bit more depth.

Let’s start with part one, is that your attorney advocates for you and executes a clear game plan for your case. Well, what does that mean? Well, I think 100% of the people that are listening to this want … if you have an attorney, you want your attorney to be in your corner. Simple as that. And a lot of times, you will say, “Hey, I don’t think … ” and here’s the phrase that I hear far more often than I should is they say, “I don’t think that my attorney is fighting for me.” And that’s unacceptable. When you pick an attorney, you’re hiring that person, you’re paying them a lot of money, and you want them to feel like or that they’re fighting for your best interest, and getting what you deserve as part of this process. You want your attorney to set you up in the best position possible for your future.

Sometimes … you know, I say all the time, your state laws vary and what your attorney can and can’t do, in certain situations, can be very different, depending upon your individual circumstances, what’s going on in your case, what the law says, et cetera, the particular dynamics. But, one of the most frustrating things I hear is you’ll say, “Hey, I brought this up to my attorney, and they ignored me.” Or they said, “It won’t work,” but didn’t explain why. Or they said, “Well, I should just do this.” And you don’t want your attorney … it’s okay if you suggest something that might be outside of the course of the law, or maybe incorrect, but you want your attorney to at least understand your position on certain items, and make sure that even if you are presenting something that might not be logical or might not be in your best interest, that your attorney sits down and explains, “Hey, John … Hey, Jane, here’s … I understand your concern. I understand what you’re getting at, but here’s why the law says otherwise.” Or, “This is what the judge says.” Or, “Here’s why I don’t think that’s the best example in your case and here’s a better solution for you.” You always want that person to be advocating for you and on your behalf.

The other thing that’s very important as part of this advocate process, is you want your attorney to have a clear game plan for you. One question I ask … or I encourage you to ask every attorney in every initial consultation, or even if you’ve already hired that person, you should say, “Hey,” … this is a very important question. You should write this down. “Given what you know about my case, what do you think are the range of outcomes that I could be looking at?” And what does that mean? I’ll say it again.

I’ll say the question again, then I’ll get to what I’m getting at. “Given the circumstances and the facts of my case that you know now, what do you think are the likely range of outcomes, based on your experience?” And here’s what we are going for. The question is, is your attorney should be able to say, “Hey, based on the facts of the case, you’ll probably get about … between 40% and 60% of these assets. The exact split may be a little bit different. I think your child support will come in around this amount. Your spousal support will come in around this amount. Here’s probably how the custody will work itself out. And ultimately, here’s what the court will likely say, if we were to go in front of a judge. And so, the goal is given this information, I think this is how we should proceed through the case and negotiate and get what you deserve.” I think this is the best option.

If your attorney doesn’t explain something like that to you, then that’s a real problem. You should have a very good sense of what your game plan is, at all times throughout your case. Now, the game plan doesn’t have to be fixed, but you should know, from the very first appointment, what that overall strategy looks like. That strategy certainly changes as the dynamics on the ground change, and certain tactics pop up, and whatever else. But, if your attorney doesn’t have a clear game plan for you, then that can be problematic. Sometimes, the game plan is we’re just going to have to go to court to deal with some of these issues because the spouse is being unresponsive. Other times, the game plan is … actually, sometimes the game plan is … and I have this with a lot of people that I work with … is, I don’t know what the game plan is quite yet. Here’s what I know, is we know that there are these assets thus far. We need to get more information. So, the game plan, for now, is we’re going to subpoena, or request, a bunch of additional information, and once we have that information, we will have a much clearer picture of what we should be asking for, and I can update you with more then.

There could be other game plans in between, that are very specific, that say, “Hey, here’s what the state laws are. This case is pretty clear-cut. This is what we should get to, and ask for, and as long as everyone’s reasonable, this is what you should probably end with at the end of this process.” Your attorney should have some form of an answer for that question. They should be, at every step of the way, helping you get to that position. So, that’s enough on number one, which is advocating and executing a clear game plan for your case.

The second thing is providing responsive customer service. What do I mean by that? Responsive customer service really just boils down to some very simple things that bad attorneys don’t do. Very simple, is they should be returning your phone calls and messages in a timely fashion. I usually say within 24 hours. Even if it’s to say, “Hey, I need some more time to look into this.” But, I know … and I hear from you … attorneys that do not reply to you for a week or two at a time. That is unacceptable under any circumstance. For most of the people I work with closely … and I try and practice what I preach … you’ll hear from me within the hour, or certainly within the day. If something’s urgent that comes up, you call me immediately and I’ll try and stop whatever I’m doing to help you, if I can.

Your attorneys should be doing the same thing. We’re all busy, all trying to help you, but if you have a question, and you say, “Hey, here’s my list of questions,” they should be able to say, “Hey, let’s schedule some time later this week to talk about it,” or they should reply to that email, or they should have an assistant say, “Hey, these are the things that you should … that we’ll get back to you with some answers soon.”

The other thing they should be doing is they need to be keeping you updated with deadlines. The legal process is filled with deadlines. Courts or documents that you need to submit to the court, or depositions, or requests for information, or any number of things that you should be thinking about, you need to be keeping track of those and keep updated with those items as things go along.

And the worst thing that can happen is … actually is … I hear this from time to time, is there are attorneys out there that won’t tell their clients that there’s a big deadline coming up. Or, they’ll tell you the day before. So, I’ll have a client say … we’ll be speaking on a Wednesday, and then on Thursday, they get an email that says, “Hey, on Friday, we have a big court date.” And that is unacceptable. You need to know … these things are scheduled, oftentimes, months in advance, and you should know months in advance, or weeks in advance, or as soon as possible, what deadlines you need to mark on your calendar and be prepared for.

And the other thing, when it comes to responsive customer service, is just keeping you informed on what’s going on. Now, unfortunately, the divorce process isn’t just a continual step-by-step thing, in most cases, and there are often gaps of weeks, sometimes even months, between things that happen. That’s okay. But, you need to know what’s going on. One of the best attorneys that I know in the country, that I work with, who’s based in Florida, in Orlando, he does this cool thing. At the end of each month, he goes through every case that he has open, and he sends a short video, two-minute video that he records at his computer screen, and says, “Hey, John, just want to send you a monthly wrap-up. Here’s what’s going on in your case. We did X, Y, and Z, this month. Next month, here’s what you should expect. Just wanted to make sure that you keep updated.” Two minutes. That’s all he sends, even if nothing’s going on, but if something’s happening, or whatever, he can just say … just do a quick check in, just to know that he’s still thinking about you and your situation. If there’s a lot more going on in your case, then he’ll record a longer video, but you always know where you stand, and you’re always informed on what’s going on.

Now, speaking of staying informed, we’re going to switch to point number three, is that you don’t get a surprise bill. This one is one of those shockers. I know attorneys who will rack up … if this has not happened to you, I guarantee all of you know someone who this has happened to … is you pay your retainer, and the retainer gets exhausted, and the attorney keeps working for you for a while. Next thing you know is you get a bill for $17,000, or $24,000, and no explanation happens. You’re looking there, and you’re like, what … you’re just dumbfounded. It’s like, where did this bill come from?

I know a lot of attorneys who might lure you in with a, “Oh, we’ll just pay a $5,000 retainer and we’ll get working,” but that $5,000 lasts a week and a half, and then they start asking you for a lot more money. And then I also know attorneys who say, “Hey, you’re going to pay me $25,000 up front.” Guess what though, there’s not going to be a surprise bill. We’re going to get this done for $25,000. It might take a week. It might take two years, but you know, there’s nothing that … there’s not going to be any surprises. If it only takes a week, you’re going to be happy, ’cause you know that the exposure wasn’t … you know, you paid $25,000 for a fast week, but if it takes longer than that, you already know that things are good. But, in any case, they communicate very clearly the cost of what is going on, and you’re never in shock when you receive a bill.

Doesn’t mean that this process going to be cheap. I was having dinner with an attorney I work closely with, a few weeks ago. And she told me that she has a client that has a very complex custody battle, that was over a million dollars in legal fees. So, it’s not necessarily going to be cheap, and hopefully, you’re not going to spend a million dollars in legal fees, but sometimes it is necessary. But, there were no surprises and believe it or not, this person who spent a million dollars in legal fees is one of the happiest clients that can exist because they were able to get what they needed out of the divorce process. It was a long and complicated battle. There were no surprises. It was going to be expensive. But, it was what it was.

And while I think about billing, as well as the other thing that you should make sure you really understand, is how your attorney charges for billing. You should try and get a sense … and it’s okay if you have to ask this question after you’ve hired the attorney but, try and get a sense. Do they bill by the quarter hour? Do they bill every six minutes? How do they bill you if you send a quick email? Is that a 15-minute bill minimum charge? Or is it something else? You should figure out what that billing is, so you’re not surprised down the line. ‘Cause even a 15-minute conversation, for an attorney, who is $600 an hour, can cost you $150 for 15 minutes, which can be a lot of money. And that adds up. And so you want to make sure you maximize the time and the interactions with your attorney.

And finally, the last thing you should be thinking about, and what a good attorney will do for you, is help you out through the case closing process. This is very important, which is just because you sign a divorce decree, doesn’t mean the divorce is over. I talked about this in previous episodes, very recent previous episodes. It can be very tempting to just put on the brakes and … I wish you could see my hand motion, but pretend like your hands are clean, and you can move on.

Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. There’s a lot of stuff that has to happen after the case is over, or at least after you’ve signed the divorce decree. And there’s a lot of assets that have to move, custody schedules, support that has to be paid, et cetera, et cetera, that need to be documented and done. Every great attorney that I work with has a very specific case closing process, that is quite robust and substantial, and probably has 30 or 40 things on it. And they will help you still through that case closing process, and then make sure that all of the things that you were supposed to get as part of this process, actually happen. And if there is an issue … and sometimes there are … that you get those resolved, and so you’re not stuck, years down the line, saying, “Hey, wait a minute. Wasn’t I supposed to do this or that?” And I actually have some people that I do coaching sessions with, who will say, “Hey, three years ago, I signed this, but I never got this asset. What do I do?” And we have to walk through how to make sure we get those things done. But, the important part is, is all of these things can be resolved right after you sign the divorce decree, so you should be paying attention to that very closely.

So, four things for you to remember. That your attorney advocates and executes … sorry, I should say advocates for you, and executes a clear game plan for your case. The second thing is that they provide responsive customer service. The third is there are no surprise bills that pop up as part of the divorce process. And fourth, is they help you when the case is closing.

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