By Howard I. Goldstein, Esquire
Goldstein, Egloff, Ramos & Wood, LLP
For most people the first step they take in getting divorced is contacting a divorce lawyer. A lot has been written on how to choose a lawyer. This article assumes that you already have chosen a lawyer who you think you will be satisfied with.
There is a fair amount of anxiety surrounding that first meeting with a new client and his/her divorce lawyer, and it is important for the clients and for their lawyer to understand how charged that first encounter is and to expect that it will be somewhat difficult for clients. Clients are fearful because of the predicament they are in. Regardless of how well thought out their decision is to consult a lawyer, and this lawyer in particular, it is a moment of high tension. Clients are not generally at their best in these first meetings. It is often helpful for clients to receive handouts of materials they can read later, and to be able to take notes at that first meeting.
It is this author’s practice to have a fairly long telephone conversation with a client prior to a first meeting, at no cost, for the purpose of figuring out whether there is any legal emergency, and to discuss in general what is involved in the particular case. Frequently when clients have had a reasonable conversation with their lawyer prior to coming in, that first meeting is more productive and the client is more relaxed.
In a surprising number of cases, my client’s spouse does not know that his/her spouse is meeting with a lawyer. In some cases “papers have been filed” and the client is coming only after having been served with legal process: a summons. In other cases, the spouses have had fairly transparent communications about divorce and have already pledged to each other a commitment to a process other than all out litigation, to obtain their divorce and resolve all issues between them. Some clients are in an immediate financial emergency, others have adequate finances so this is not the case. The client’s circumstances will dictate what happens at a first meeting.
Often clients have not disclosed to his/her spouse that they are consulting with a lawyer. Sometimes the client is unsure that they want a divorce, but they want to know what they can expect if they go forward with a divorce. The first thing I do with this client is to reassure them that if they don’t want their spouse to know they are in my office, that will be assured. Often this involves receiving payment for the consultation by cash or money order, rather than personal check. The client’s right to privacy is absolute and no client should feel that they cannot consult a lawyer because their spouse will find out.
What I like to do at a first meeting is get to know my client as a person, and try to learn as much as possible about their spouse and children. It is very important that I learn as much as I can about the psychological and financial situation this client is in. At this point I will sometimes refer clients to psychotherapists, divorce coaches and financial planners to get specialized advice. Clients are frequently surprised to hear that I work with other professionals and find that reassuring.
It is never easy to predict with total accuracy what will “happen” in a divorce, but there are certain rules of thumb for financial situations and for custody and visitation problems and we can generally go through all of them at a first meeting.
I am always surprised that clients are fairly uninformed about alimony. Many men worry that it is forever or that it will leave them broke. It is rarely that way. On the other hand, most women are fearful they will get nothing. That is never the case if support is needed.
There are child support guidelines in Massachusetts that determine how much child support is to be paid, and rules of thumb when the guidelines don’t apply. It is usually fairly straightforward and informing clients how much they are likely to pay or receive can be very helpful in relieving their anxiety.
Similarly, asset division creates a fair amount of worry and a rough estimate of how the assets will be divided can usually be obtained at a first meeting, subject of course to further evaluation of exactly what assets exist, what they are worth, and later tax and investment analysis if appropriate.
Clients will have concerns that they are about to “lose their children” if they are the mothers, or that they will “never see their children:” if they are the fathers. In fact, Courts encourage both parents to be very involved with their children unless there is some severe pathology in the family or a particular parent, and it is almost never the case that one parent will be totally excluded from involvement with their children. Similarly, the Probate Court will not generally disturb what has been the ongoing pattern of child rearing, unless there is some reason to think that present circumstances are particularly harmful to the children.
At the end of the first meeting, clients, generally leave with homework which includes learning as much as possible about the finances, in terms of assets, liabilities and ongoing expenses. It is frequently the case that only one spouse has been in charge of finances and before a divorce can be resolved, both spouses need to have a complete understanding of the family finances before their divorce lawyers can help them. If you can provide as much detail on your finances as possible at a first meeting with your new lawyer, that meeting will be all the more productive.
Although every divorce case is different, that first meeting with a lawyer can set the tone for the entire process. For that reason it is important that clients leave their first meeting with the feeling that they have been understood and listened to, and that they have, in their lawyer, a resource who is tuned in to their specific needs, and someone who is accessible and available to help them through the stressful time ahead. Although there are many uncertainties, most clients can leave their first meeting with answers to their most worrisome concerns, and will be reassured.