The Initial Consultation: How to Get the Most Out of Your First Meeting With a Family Law Attorney

The initial meeting between a potential client and the attorney is commonly referred to as the “initial consultation.”  During this first meeting, several things occur.  In addition to evaluating the merits of the potential client’s case, the attorney will also be evaluating whether the potential client is someone with whom the attorney would like to work.  The initial consultation is also an opportunity for the potential client to evaluate the attorney: does the attorney seem knowledgeable, trustworthy, and competent?  Is the attorney someone with whom the potential client is comfortable discussing sensitive topics (a frequent occurrence in family law cases)?

Some initial consultations are scheduled for thirty minutes, while others for a full hour.  Some are in person, some are telephonic.  Some attorneys charge for initial consultations––either their normal hourly rate or a reduced or flat fee––while others do not charge anything at all.  Some attorneys will limit the scope of the initial consultation to process rather than getting too deep into substantive issues since, at that time, the attorney has not yet been retained and may not be able to dispense “legal advice”.  If, however, the client has retained the attorney then this consultation will be more substantive.  Regardless, it is in the potential client’s interest to get as much value out of the initial consultation as possible, whether or not the meeting results in the formation of an attorney-client relationship.  Below are some tips for maximizing the chances of a successful initial consultation.

Be prepared to explain your circumstances succinctly.

No matter how long the initial consultation, expect the time to pass quickly.  There is a natural tendency, when telling a personal story, to include every detail, no matter how insignificant relative to the threshold issue(s).  During the initial consultation, the attorney will likely want to focus on the “highlights” of a prospective client’s circumstances and key supporting details.  Including unnecessary minutiae can distract from the “big picture,” which benefits neither the attorney nor the prospective client.  If in doubt, let the attorney set the parameters for discussion.

Familiarize yourself with your and your partner’s assets, debts, and income.

During the initial consultation, the attorney may inquire about the potential client’s financial circumstances.  Dividing the marital estate, consisting of the parties’ collective assets and debts, is a critical part of divorce cases.  However, financial information can also be relevant in non-divorce cases, including, e.g., assessing a person’s ability to pay support arrearages and the availability of resources for expert witnesses.

Potential clients should arrive at the initial consultation with a working knowledge of this information, to the extent possible.

Similarly, the potential client should be familiar with the parties’ incomes, both from employment and other sources (such as investments), and the parties’ employment and earnings history.  This information is necessary to evaluate, e.g., potential child support and alimony claims and whether a party is voluntarily underemployed.

Answer the attorney’s questions directly.

It is important for the prospective client to answer the attorney’s questions directly.  If the attorney asks for information about a topic, it is safe to assume there is a reason for it.   Trust the process.  If the precise answer is unknown, do not hesitate to let the attorney know and provide a good faith approximation.    However, a prospective client who cannot answer questions directly in an initial consultation will likely also have difficulty doing so at deposition or on the witness stand.  This can be viewed as a red flag.

Be honest about your “bad facts.”

There is a natural inclination to omit or minimize one’s “bad facts”  or vulnerabilities.  However, it is critically important that the prospective client be completely honest with the attorney about all facts so that the attorney can objectively evaluate the prospective client’s case.  Withholding or downplaying unflattering facts––deliberately or inadvertently––can lead to an inaccurate impression of the prospective client’s case which, in turn, can impair an attorney’s ability to provide sound advice.  Honest communication is one of the bedrock principles of the attorney-client relationship.  If an attorney is not able to rely on a client to convey information accurately, the attorney will not be able to provide effective representation and may, upon discovery of dishonesty, withdraw from the representation.

Consider your goals.

The prospective client should try to ascertain his or her long and short-term goals, although they may not all be clear at the outset and may in fact change as the case progresses.  Whether it is keeping the marital home, protecting assets, or having equal residential responsibility for minor children, the importance of communicating such goals to the attorney is paramount.  This allows the attorney to advise the prospective client on how best to pursue their goals as well as the likelihood of successfully achieving them.  The prospective client should not, however, expect to understand at the outset the nuances of his her or case.

A written list of questions to ask can be helpful.

Prospective clients usually have one or more specific questions they would like answered.  Due to the amount of information that must be communicated in a relatively short amount of time, however, the initial consultation can pass very quickly.  A written prioritized list will help the prospective client to remember to ask the specific questions to be answered before the consultation period has ended.

About the Attorney: Petar M. Leonard

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