The initial consultation between a prospective new client and an attorney, especially in a family law case, is a very important meeting. For a prospective client, it is understandably daunting to potentially enter into a relationship with a stranger who will become very familiar with, and play a role in influencing, some of the most personal and important areas of her life. The family law attorney must recognize that, for the individual client, the initial consultation is not just an opportunity to discuss “another case,” but is often a confusing, anxious and intimidating conversation which the client wishes she didn’t have to have.
However, as scary as the initial consultation may be for the client, it is still the obligation of the family law attorney to efficiently gauge the client and the case, and determine whether the attorney and the firm can provide the best service for the client. A family law attorney who unabashedly treats the initial consultation as a “sales job,” and simply tells the client what she wants to hear, is not serving the client well. It is the obligation of the attorney to present the client with a realistic picture of what she can expect. And, while it is virtually impossible for a family law attorney to learn everything about a client and a case in the initial consultation, experienced practitioners can successfully synthesize a case in the first meeting and provide cogent general direction.
A significant portion of the initial consultation will usually involve the attorney listening to the client, as she describes her situation, feelings and goals. However, in order to perform an effective analysis of the case, the attorney will often need to ask specific and rather pointed questions, in areas which the client may not have addressed. The purpose of such inquiry is not to minimize the client’s perception of what is relevant, but rather to focus on issues which the attorney’s experience suggests will be important. The prospective client should welcome these types of questions, which show that the attorney is actively gathering and processing information.
Many clients will want the attorney to give an opinion regarding what type of results they could expect in court or through settlement. The honest attorney will rarely answer such questions in absolute terms, since ultimate results are often dependent upon factors which the attorney either doesn’t know at that time, or are beyond his control. For instance, results in family law cases can depend significantly upon the judge who hears the case, or the attorney who is hired by the client’s spouse, neither of which may be known at the time of the initial consultation. While the attorney can certainly provide his analysis of the case, and outline a course to best pursue the client’s goals, results can rarely be guaranteed. An informed client should be wary of the attorney who assures her that she can absolutely get everything she wants.
Another important issue that must be addressed in initial consultations is legal fees. In an initial consultation the attorney usually simply cannot know how much the case is going to cost, because it will depend upon a variety of factors including the positions taken by the spouse and whether the case settles or goes to trial. However, the attorney should be willing to give the client a potential range of fees under certain scenarios, and explain to the client what the firm’s expectation is regarding the payment of fees. The attorney and the client should also realistically assess whether the attorney and/or the firm is an appropriate financial match for the client. Often clients who may not be able to afford retaining a partner with the highest hourly rate can have their cases handled by a less expensive associate attorney at the firm. These discussions should take place as early in the process as possible, so that the client can enjoy a consistency of representation.
And finally, given the uniquely personal nature of family law cases, it is important for the client to feel personally comfortable with the attorney, and vice-versa. Sometimes individuals’ personalities do not mesh, and this can spell disaster for a family law attorney-client relationship. The client should have an attorney she respects and trusts, and the attorney should know that the client is willing to listen objectively and follow reasonable advice. If either the client or the attorney come away from the initial consultation without these feelings, then it is likely not in either of their interests to pursue the relationship. In these instances, the attorney may refer the client to another attorney at the firm or in the area, which could lead to a more satisfying and beneficial pairing.
Since 1975, ShounBach has served the Northern Virginia community. Our team brings over 200 years of combined legal experience and has grown to be one of Virginia’s largest family and estate law firms.