The Initial Consultation with Your Divorce Attorney:
What to Expect When You Don’t Know What to Expect
By John F. Schaefer
The Law Firm of John F. Schaefer
[Published for the State Bar of Michigan Section on Family Law Client Guide]
Few people truly want to consult with a matrimonial attorney relative to a divorce. When
confronted with the possibility of a divorce and the potential need for a matrimonial attorney,
most people have no idea what to expect during their initial contact and consultation. In fact, for
most people contacting a matrimonial attorney, it will be their first contact with any attorney.
Take a deep breath and relax. While the possibility of a divorce may seem daunting, and
your problems may seem to lack potential solutions, matrimonial attorneys, through their
professional skill and experience, understand what you are going through and know how to solve
Click on a title below to reveal more information about each topic.
Contacting a Matrimonial Attorney ▾
attorney’s office, know that everything you say, including your name and the reason you are
calling, will be kept strictly confidential by the receptionist and attorney who answers your call.
No reason exists to fear giving your name or to answer questions over the telephone. In fact, if
you do not provide your name, most attorneys will not continue the conversation so as to protect
you and any of his or her other clients (including perhaps your spouse, who may have already
called that same attorney) from any potential conflicts of interest.
If the attorney is not available when you call, the person answering your call will know to
ask (i) whether it is acceptable or “safe” for the attorney to call you back, (ii) whether the
attorney should dial *67 to block the identity of the attorney returning your call on your Caller
ID, and (iii) whether it is okay to leave a message if you are not available to answer the call.
When leaving a message for the attorney, try to provide a number at which you can actually be
contacted. Providing a pager number usually results in an endless game of “telephone tag”.
The vast majority of the wisdom and advice that you will be seeking from a matrimonial
attorney cannot be provided over the telephone. In almost all situations, it will necessary for you
to schedule an appointment to meet face to face with the prospective attorney. Meeting with an
attorney does not create any obligation on your part, nor does it mean that you must get divorced.
In fact, many times it is the matrimonial attorney who can put you in touch with a capable
marriage counselor or begin a dialogue that leads to a reconciliation. Nonetheless, it will be
necessary for you to make a trip to the prospective attorney’s office.
What to Bring With You to Your First Meeting ▾
with you to your first meeting. In fact, most people do not bring anything with them at all.
While it will be your attorney’s job to gather all of the relevant net worth, income, and expense
information during the pendency of any case, it is often helpful to have copies of recent tax
returns, paystubs, bank statements, and other documents bearing numbers that may be lying
around your home or office. Obviously, if you happen to have found that singularly
incriminating love note or videotape, bring that along too.
What to Expect When You Arrive for Your First Meeting ▾
arrive it will not be anything like going to your doctor’s office. You will not be required to write
your name on a sign-in sheet for the next person who arrives to inspect. You will not encounter a
waiting room full of people, some of whom you may know. No one will step out from behind a
closed door and suddenly summon you by announcing your name and the reason for your visit to
a waiting room full of people. And, in contrast to the waiting rooms in doctors’ offices, the
magazines tend to have been published within last decade.
The reality is that matrimonial attorneys understand that your visit to their office is
strictly confidential. Rarely will anyone be kept waiting more than a few minutes in the lobby, as
matrimonial attorneys try to prevent two clients, especially new clients, from being present in the
lobby at the same time, whenever possible.
What to Expect From Your First Meeting ▾
matrimonial attorney, expect the attorney to provide you with an overview of what to anticipate
relative to at least the following five issues: (1) the divorce process, (2) matters pertaining to any
minor children of the marriage, (3) division of your assets and liabilities, (4) support (both child
support and spousal support), and (5) the related attorneys’ fees and costs. In order to be able to
address these five primary issues for you and provide you with a potential gameplan, it be will
necessary for the attorney to make a substantial inquiry into all sorts of matters. Some of the
questions will be name, rank, and serial number types of questions; other questions will pertain
to minor children; additional questions will be related to financial matters; and other questions
will be of a more personal nature in terms of any precipitating events and who did what to
whom. Know that when answering these questions the attorney-client privilege is in effect,
meaning anything you tell to the attorney will not, and cannot, be repeated to anyone without
your permission. With that understanding, it is imperative that you tell the attorney the truth and
provide all of the related details. The quality of the advice you receive will be directly
proportional to the candor with which you answer the attorney’s questions.
The Name, Rank, and Serial Number Types of Questions ▾
of birth, and social security numbers for you and your spouse. The reason this information is
needed is so that the attorney can be prepared to file a case, if necessary, on short notice should
you call back in two days, two weeks, two months, or two years. What you do not want to occur
is for you to call the attorney back several weeks down the road, if and when you need immediate
action, and have the attorney not be in possession of the basic information to proceed with filing
papers with a court on your behalf. It is okay to provide address and telephone contact
information; no one is going to call you at any telephone number or send you any mail at any
address without your express permission.
The next series of questions usually pertains to the details of your current marriage and
any prior marriages. The attorney will need to know when you were married, by whom you were
married, and where the marriage took place. Not only must this information be included in any
initial paperwork filed with a court, but sometimes issues arise relative to defects in the marriage
arising out of the marriage ceremony. Similarly, the attorney will need details relative to the
termination of any prior marriages, whether they ended by death or divorce (primarily in order to
ascertain whether there were any impediments to the current marriage which might be raised as a
procedural defense). Included in the inquiry relative to prior marriages will be questions
pertaining to children from prior relationships, child support still being paid or received, and
spousal support still being paid or received. All of this information has a potential impact on the
attorney’s assessment of your current situation.
Whether you or your spouse has previously filed for a divorce from the other, or whether
your spouse has consulted an attorney, are also important parts of the evaluation process. To the
extent your prospective attorney has some insight as to the identity of the judge to whom the case
has been assigned (if your spouse has already filed a case) or the identity of opposing counsel, the
more precise the attorney can be in advising you what to expect during the process and as a
potential outcome. Each judge has different tendencies, opinions, and idiosyncracies, and every
opposing counsel handles his or her cases with different degrees of sophistication and
professionalism. However, in most instances, the identity of the judge and opposing counsel
cannot be ascertained until a case is commenced.
Questions Pertaining to Minor Children ▾
school, your prospective attorney will need to be informed. More specifically, the attorney will
need to know the children’s ages, dates of birth, addresses at which the children have lived
during the past five years, and all health or psychological issues confronting each child. Many
attorneys will also ask you for a description of each child’s personality. Most attorneys will also
ask for your assessment of your parenting skills and your spouse’s parenting skills. The more
insight you can provide into each child’s personality and each parent’s parenting skills, the easier
it will be for your prospective attorney to assess the numerous issues pertaining to physical
custody, legal custody, and parenting time/visitation. To the extent that your children may have
potential preferences as to with whom they wish to live, this angle must be explored, although it
is not always of significant relevance. As part of the interview process, it is imperative that you
receive an honest assessment of the legal issues pertaining to your minor children, rather than be
told what you want to hear. This can only be accomplished with your complete honesty and
The Financially Oriented Questions ▾
preliminary understanding of your net worth, income, and expenses/lifestyle, so that your
prospective attorney can assess the issues of property division, child support, and spousal
support. You are not expected to be able to answer all of the questions, and many times clients
can only answer a few of the questions. Your inability to answer questions will not impact your
prospective attorney’s ability to handle your case, only his or her ability to provide a more
detailed, preliminary assessment of your case, which in the long run is not problematic.
Relative to the support issues, not only is a person’s income relevant, but his or her ability
to earn a living can be very important. Thus, the initial financial inquiry pertaining to income
and earning capacity usually explores your and your spouse’s educational/licensing backgrounds,
your employment histories, and your current incomes from employment and all other sources.
To the extent that you can bring tax returns to your initial meeting, such documentation will
enable your prospective attorney to better assess your matter.
Equally important to the assessment of the support issues are questions pertaining to
expenses and lifestyle. Your prospective attorney’s questions will be designed to gauge the
magnitude of your basic monthly expenditures, but more importantly, the full nature and extent
of the expense level reflective of the standard of living enjoyed by your family during the
marriage. Ultimately, this information will be gathered from a review of check registers, bank
statements, and credit card statements, which your attorney will obtain during the divorce
process. Such information will help the attorney to understand what needs to be done to
maintain the financial status quo while your case is pending and how much financial support will
be required/payable at the conclusion of your case.
Relative to property division issues, your attorney will be attempting to construct a basic
statement of net worth listing all of your assets and liabilities and the amount of each item. The
questions will tend to focus on homes and related mortgages, bank accounts, brokerage accounts,
retirement accounts/benefits, business interests, life insurance policies, automobiles, and credit
card debts, among many other related questions. Again, some people are able to provide a fairly
detailed overview of their net worth, and other people do not even know at which bank they have
a checking account. While all of this information will be obtained for you by your attorney, and
carefully reviewed as your case progresses, a rough sketch at the initial meeting will enable the
attorney to provide you with an initial assessment of how your estate may be divided.
In order to render such a preliminary assessment, the prospective attorney will also ask
questions designed to elicit information about premarital assets, assets received as gifts, and
inherited assets. Often the focus when dividing property is whether all of the property should be
divided or whether some of the property is exempt from division by the court. In this area of the
law there are lots of shades of gray. Thus, the attorney may ask questions in an attempt to gather
information to bolster or thwart claims related to premarital, gifted, and inherited property.
These questions may focus on each spouse’s contributions to the acquisition, maintenance, and
improvement of various assets, title to various assets, and the possible commingling of various
If you and your spouse executed any form of a prenuptial agreement or a postnuptial
agreement, the prospective attorney will ask questions designed to assess the validity and
potential enforceability of the agreement. These questions usually focus on the financial
disclosure made incident to the execution of the document, when the document was signed in
relation to the date of the marriage, the circumstances surrounding the execution of the
document, changes in circumstances that may have occurred since the execution of the
document, among numerous other related questions.
The Questions of a More Personal Nature ▾
about at the onset of the meeting: the who did what to whom and the “whos”, “whats”, “wheres”,
and “whys” associated with such events. It will be important for your attorney to know whether
there was any marital misconduct or domestic violence. Understanding incidents and patterns of
domestic violence will help the attorney put together a plan to protect you during and after the
process. Understanding any marital misconduct will aid the attorney in putting together a
strategic plan for addressing such issues to your potential benefit and/or protecting you from any
related adverse consequences. In Michigan, which is commonly referred to as a no-fault
divorce state, conduct such as adultery and abuse are irrelevant to whether or not the court grants
you a divorce, but it can be highly relevant as to how the assets are distributed and the income is
apportioned. Therefore, not only must your attorney know everything of which you have been a
victim, but also any marital misconduct in which you have been engaged. There is nothing worse
for an attorney than when a client tugs on an attorney’s sleeve in a courtroom six months into a
case and says: “There is something I forgot to tell you.”
If You Were Not Already Asked ▾
prospective attorney will need to know whether you and your spouse have engaged in any
settlement discussions. This inquiry is important for two reasons. First, compromises your
spouse might be willing to make could potentially give the attorney insight into the positions he
or she might take and the reasonableness of such positions. Second, statements that you have
made to your spouse relative to settlement may potentially limit the bargaining positions your
attorney can assert on your behalf. Thus, to the extent you and your spouse have not had any
such discussions, do not have any until you have had an opportunity to consult with a
matrimonial attorney, and you fully understand the parameters of such important discussions.
If you were not previously asked at some earlier point in the interview process, your
prospective attorney will need to know whether you and your spouse have engaged in any marital
counseling and whether a reconciliation may be possible. One purpose of this inquiry is to
ascertain whether the attorney might be helpful in assisting you in the reconciliation process.
Another purpose is to evaluate whether you have considered all of your options before heading
down the path toward a divorce.
Presentation of a Gameplan ▾
enough information to assess your situation, he or she can finally provide you with advice on the
primary issues (discussed above) and the other related issues. At this point, it is important for
you to listen very, very carefully as this is the most informative part of the meeting for you. At
this point, your prospective attorney should be advising you in two capacities: (i) as an attorney
and (ii) as a counselor. In his or her capacity as your advocate, the advice will focus on the
zealous representation you will be afforded in the negotiation process or in the courtroom. In his
or her capacity as your counselor, the advice will focus on what you should reasonably expect
and anticipate based on the attorney’s professional experience. It is important to understand what
all of your options are, but it is more important to have a realistic picture of what you can really
Some people desire to hire attorneys who will tell them exactly what they want to hear,
and other people seek to hire attorneys who guide them on a prudent and realistic course of
action. How a matrimonial attorney presents his or her â€œgameplanâ€ for your matter will be
tremendously helpful in the decision making process as to which attorney can best represent you
in the manner you want to be represented.
Fees for the Attorney's Services ▾
to the process and what to expect relative to custody, parenting time, property division, child
support, and spousal support, to the extent such issues are relevant to your matter, only then can
the attorney intelligently discuss the attorney fees and costs associated with your matter.
The attorneys’ fees that you will be quoted will be based on the following factors: (1) the
time and labor required, (2) the novelty and difficulty of the questions involved, (3) the skill
requisite to perform the legal services properly, (4) the likelihood that the acceptance of your case
will preclude other employment by the lawyer, (5) the fee customarily charged in your locality
for similar legal services, (6) the amount involved and the results obtained, (7) the time
limitations imposed by you or by the circumstances, and (8) the experience, reputation, and
ability of your lawyer.
In the vast majority of situations any projection that you are given relative to the ultimate
magnitude of the fees and costs will be nothing more than a professional estimate rather than a
firm quote. In most situations, it is not possible to make a final prediction with any high degree
of accuracy. The primary reason why attorneys cannot precisely project your total attorneys fees
is that it is impossible to predict how cooperative or uncooperative the other party, his or her
representatives, or essential third parties may be. To the extent that any of these individuals are
uncooperative or unreasonable, the time and labor required to represent you may increase.
If and when you decide to move forward with a particular attorney, you should always be
provided with a fee agreement that explains the basis on which you will be charged. Incident to
signing the fee agreement you will almost always be asked to provide an initial payment. Few
attorneys will agree to take on your matter and commit their time and resources without an
concomitant commitment from you.
The Next Step in the Process ▾
relative to the divorce process, matters pertaining to your minor children, property division,
support (both child support and spousal support), and attorneys’ fees. You should have also
received advice relative to related insurance issues, health care issues, tax issues, and a plethora
of other issues that may arise in your matter. Now, the ball is in your court. Are you comfortable
with this attorney, or should you seek another opinion? If you are comfortable with this attorney,
are there reasons, based on the professional advice you received, to proceed immediately, or are
there no exigent circumstances which require immediate legal action?
While the foregoing interview process may seem unnecessarily personal and revealing,
remember the quality of the advice you receive will be directly proportional to the candor with
which you answer your prospective attorney’s questions. Now that you know what to expect
from your first contact with a matrimonial attorney, take another deep breath and relax. Your
problems can be solved