When you come to a family law attorney and the attorney lets you know the initial fee and then further explains that the fee may, and probably will, go higher. You may be wondering what the attorney is doing that costs so much money. At Houston Divorce Counsel, we provide all our clients with a written contract and with a monthly statement stating what was done, who did it, and how long it took. But that statement does not tell you what is actually going on and why it takes so long.
When a client first comes to see a family lawyer, he or she is usually seeking general advice about the process of separating from his or her spouse. Once the client makes the decision to separate, the lawyer’s role changes to fit the needs of the situation. A good attorney will look at the client as an individual whose present needs are specific to that person. While some firms may be known for their “one size fits all” agenda or the “We’ll fight them until they are down and then kick even harder” attitude, a good attorney will listen to the client and tailor their representation to that person’s needs. At Houston Divorce Counsel, the first thing we need to know is where you are, both emotionally and financially, and where you believe your spouse is on those same issues. We provide our clients with a notebook setting out information and explaining the documents we will need. The notebook has a lot of information for the client to review and provides written confirmation of the information the client has already received. A lawyer will spend several hours and may spend several days, reviewing these documents. The work can be painstaking, but it is needed to understand what has been happening financially to the couple over the past few years. It is not enough to know the balance of the account on the date the couple separated. Sudden withdrawals just prior to the separation may impact the property picture greatly. Credit card statements can provide a wealth of information about spending habits, and about other not so obvious issues, like why flowers are being purchased by husband, but not received by wife. The point is, reviewing documents is a large part of any lawyer’s job, including the family lawyer, and takes time.
After the lawyer reviews the documents, she has to take the information gleaned, apply the law, and determine the possible scenarios that might arise given the couple’s financial picture and the desires of the client. For instance, a client might desperately want to keep the marital home, but not have enough liquid assets to compensate the other spouse for his share of the equity in the property. Here, the lawyer needs to analyze and strategize solutions to this very real problem. Here, also, we review a common scenario where we can get a person the marital home but, unlike most law firms, we go beyond that to see if it is probably that after receiving the home as part of the settlement the client will be able to afford it financially with the monthly payments and upkeep and maintenance. We share this information with our client to see if it impacts the client’s decisions. Regardless of how wonderful the agreement is that your attorney drafts, if you had one issue you considered the most important and it is the one your attorney leaves out, you will not be happy with the representation no matter how competent it may have been. That is why at Houston Divorce Counsel, we take the time to find out what is important to you.
One of the easiest things for an attorney to do is to substitute the attorney’s belief as to the best possible settlement for the client’s. A good attorney will take the job of a counselor at law as important as the job of an advocate. While our job is to advise and counsel you as to why we believe a certain approach or settlement is best, it is your ultimate authority to make any decisions as to settlement.
When an attorney acts as a “counselor at law”, it is not the role of a psychologist or marriage counselor, but like a person giving advice on how to move through the divorce process. A good attorney will allow the client to decide what is important and lead the client through different possible resolutions to the situation. Until the attorney has all the facts, she or he cannot know what resolution would be best for a client. Until the client has all the facts, she or he cannot make a reasoned decision. Making a decision is always the client’s choice, but making it from a position of knowledge is always best. It is up to the attorney to make sure the client knows and understands the law and the different options available. As in our above example, where a client may want the house but may not be able to afford the continued cost of upkeep and maintenance, having that information will allow the client to review all options. The client may decide the house is important enough to make specific financial plans to be able to maintain the home, or may plan to sell the house in a certain amount of time, or may think of options such as a co-owner or roommate or may, upon reflection, decide that it may be best to sell the house. Doing all the research and review necessary to look at the facts objectively, while at the same time considering the client’s subjective desires, takes time and experience. Having your attorney truly understand the facts of your case and what is important to you will result in a better long term resolution of your matter.
Child custody matters also require a great deal of time which may not be readily apparent to the client. Happily, most people love their children. Unhappily, when in a divorce situation, not everyone acts in the best way possible. When children are involved, the lawyer is placed in the position of trying to advance the client’s interest, knowing that the interest may or may not coincide with what is best for the children. While Houston Divorce Counsel will help you understand the law and how it applies to your situation, you will need to provide us with a custody history and help us understand the family dynamic and family needs. There are many different things that go into custody and visitation. We will need to talk to you and possibly to people who know your children and their needs. Here it is important for the attorney to learn what has been going on in the family for the past few years, who has taken on what roles and what is good or bad about different parents and parenting styles. In custody matters, much of the time family lawyers spend on the telephone with their client deals with problems that are presently occurring in a set custody schedule. Sometimes the changes are deliberately created by a parent to interfere with the other parent’s time with the children. Sometimes circumstances, like an ice storm, or an illness, wreak havoc with the planned upon meeting. These problems are not solved by one phone call. They often entail numerous calls between the attorney, her client, and the opposing attorney. In extreme cases, a lawyer may have to draft a motion to take to a judge and request intervention. Custody matters will often include many discussions and negotiations, reviews of seemingly trivial documents and information, which, altogether, form a firm foundation for the position we are advocating.
In all matters, coming up with solutions can be harder than taking a case to trial. At a trial, a lawyer presents the evidence and asks the Court to provide an answer. The work necessary to prepare a case for trial far outweighs the actual trial itself. There is an oft-quoted adage that a lawyer should never ask a witness a question to which he/she does not know the answer. Thus, when preparing for a trial, the lawyer needs to study all of the information available to prevent the possibility of a surprise.
Sometimes, a seemingly new problem presents itself, causing the lawyer to go back to the books and review the cases on the issue. Or an issue may have some gray areas which require a review of cases and sometimes the preparation of a legal brief. More often research requires the attorney to have the knowledge and a case at the attorney’s fingertips to support the client’s position and to enable the attorney to negotiate from a position of strength-based not just on reason but also on the law. The law is an ever-evolving concept, and a good lawyer must spend part of his or her time reviewing and analyzing the court’s opinions on any given variety of issues. These matters take time but are ultimately important to the positive resolution of your case. Today, the definitions of family, parenting, and marriage itself have new and challenging dimensions.
Finally, much of what a lawyer does is simply to communicate–both by listening and talking. The lawyer needs to communicate with his/her client, with potential witnesses, with experts, with the opposing side, and with the court in order to help resolve the problems presented.
At Houston Divorce Counsel, we believe that it is important for you to understand your choices and the law and to make decisions that are right for you. Like your choice to marry, your decision to divorce is a life-changing experience. In order to have the result you hope to achieve, you will need an attorney who has done what is necessary within the parameters you choose, to bring your matter to a successful resolution.