For many people, divorce may be the first and sometimes only time they will work with a lawyer during their lifetime. Not knowing how to work effectively with your lawyer can lead to unnecessary frustration and dissatisfaction. In this episode, host Jaime Davis and her law partner Carrie Tortora discuss tips related to five different areas of working with a divorce attorney: the initial consultation, including how to prepare and what to expect; communicating with your lawyer; what to do when you are asked to collect documents and information for your attorney; managing your legal bill; and most importantly, maintaining your sanity during the process.
Note: Our Podcast, “A Year and a Day: Divorce Without Destruction”, was created to be heard, but we provide text transcripts to make this information accessible to everyone. All transcripts on our website are created using a combination of speech recognition software and human transcribers and could contain errors.
Jaime Davis: Welcome to Episode Five of Season Three of “A Year and a Day.” I’m your host, Jamie Davis, always, speaking via Skype with my law partner, Carrie Tortora. Carrie is a board certified family law specialist and has practiced exclusively in the area of family law for more than 10 years. Carrie and I will be discussing tips for working effectively with your family lawyer. For many people, divorce may be the first and sometimes only time they will work with a lawyer in their lifetime, and not knowing how to work effectively with your lawyer can lead to dissatisfaction. Carrie and I put together a list of tips related to five different areas of working with a divorce attorney. During this episode, we will discuss tips related to the initial consultation, including how to prepare and what to expect, communicating with your lawyer, what to do when you’re asked to collect documents and information for your attorney, your bill, and most importantly, maintaining your sanity during the process. So without further ado, here’s our call.
Hi Carrie. Thanks for joining me today.
Carrie Tortora: Thanks for having me.
Jaime Davis: Are you ready to discuss with our listeners some tips for working effectively with your family lawyer
Carrie Tortora: I am, let’s get started.
Jaime Davis: All right, so let’s, let’s start at the beginning. So once a person has made the decision to reach out to a lawyer and has scheduled their initial consultation with that lawyer, what should they do to ensure that they get the most out of that initial consultation?
Carrie Tortora: So initial consults are usually around an hour, maybe an hour to an hour and a half or two hours. And it’s impossible to tell your entire life story and the story of your marriage during that consult. And so I recommend going back through, you know, journals, or just, even in your mind, taking some time and jotting down a timeline of events that have happened, that are noteworthy. Um, you know, even just the basics, like when you all got married, when your children were born, when you moved to different states, um, a timeline of various employment that you’ve, or your spouse has had, um, just as it, when you’re in the consult and you’re stressed, or in this stressful situation in general, you don’t forget some of those very important facts.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, that’s a really good point. The consult is just not long enough for you to be able to effectively convey to the lawyer, everything that you want to say to them. Um, I also think it’s really important to remember that the consult is not a time for you to get every single question that you have answered. Again, it’s just time prohibitive. Um, but I do think it’s important that you walk out of that consult with a plan, um, talk through your legal issues with your family law attorney. And when you leave that initial meeting, um, the goal should be to walk away having a general idea of what your next step should be.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah, absolutely. I mean, so much of this process is stressful because of the unknown. And so the consult, while you know, some of the information that we tell you may be something that you don’t want to hear, or may, you know, it’s not pleasant information, at least knowledge is power and walking out of a consult with a plan will help you move forward through what is a very traumatic time and process for many people. But having the next steps in place will ease your mind, knowing that you can execute the steps, um, in a more methodical manner than maybe, you know, the chaos has seemed up until that point,
Jaime Davis: Right. And I think too, the consult is the place where you are determining whether or not a particular lawyer is a good fit for you and for your case. Um, I always tell folks, you know, you need to trust your lawyer. Like you trust your doctor. And if you have an initial meeting with an attorney and you’re not comfortable with that attorney, or you feel like maybe their personality is not a good fit for yours or whatever the case may be. Um, you know, there’s lots of attorneys out there. So you should seek a second opinion. If that’s how you feel after your initial meeting.
Carrie Tortora: I tell people, you should have as many consults as you can afford. And as you can withstand, because lawyers are people, we all have different personalities, we have different practice styles, we have different approaches. And it’s really important that you click with the lawyer that you hire, because you’re going to be spending potentially a lot of time with that person. And you’re going to be relying on them to do some pretty important things in your life. And so absolutely if you can, if you’re able to have more than one consult just to see what’s out there and sort of the lay of the land, that is a great idea.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, definitely. I mean, your family law attorney is going to be helping you make decisions about the two most important things in your life, your children, number one, and your money, your finances, your future, um, and as important that you see eye to eye with the person that is helping guide you through the process.
Carrie Tortora: Yes. Um, you know, another tip for a consult is to bring a family member or a friend. Um, and, um, the caveat that we always tell people is that, um, if you have a third party present, when you’re talking to your lawyer, um, then it can potentially destroy attorney client privilege that you otherwise would share. Um, however, a family member or friend can be really helpful, um, to pick up on the information. Um, and the explanation of the law that a lot of folks are sort of unable to absorb during, during this very highly stressful time. And so they can sort of help you remember what it is that the lawyer said to you, and they can also help fill in the blanks and the information that has happened to you, that you may also leave out or forget to share with the lawyer. Um, so I think it’s really helpful to have folks in the meeting, but, um, it’s a personal decision and it, it is only as helpful as the person is helpful, right? So if, if there is someone in your life who potentially is going to create more stress for you, or put a little more pressure on you, then don’t have that person come. Of course. But if you have a trusted confidant that you have been sort of relying on, it may be helpful for that person to be a second set of ears for you.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. That’s a good point. And, you know, thinking about the whole privilege issue and making sure that the information remains confidential, you know, it’s possible to have the friend or family member help you tell your story and maybe help fill in some of those blanks that you don’t remember. Um, like you said, going through a separation and the early stages of a divorce are very, very stressful and there’s a lot of anxiety and that can affect your ability to recall information you’re sort of spinning. And so the friend or family member can be a really good backup for you. If you forget some of those important details with that said, there may come a time and there should come a time in the consultation where the lawyer will begin giving you legal advice. And at that point, you know, you or the lawyer can ask the friend to step out of the room. That way you are maintaining the confidentiality and the privilege with respect to that communication.
Carrie Tortora: Absolutely.
Jamie Davis: So any other tips about our initial consult before we move on to the next stage?
Carrie Tortora: I think we’re ready to move to the next point.
Jaime Davis: Okay. So you have had your initial consultation with your family law attorney. The consultation went well. You’ve decided that you want to hire this person to be your attorney. What tips do you have for this person about the best way to go about communicating with their lawyer once they have retained him or her?
Carrie Tortora: The first tip that I have in bold highlight, you know, huge font is like any relationship. The, one of the hallmarks of the attorney client relationship is honesty. And so that is honesty from your lawyer. You should expect that they will give you honest and open and direct feedback, and you need to be honest with your lawyer. And so that includes, you know, not just telling the truth, but telling the whole truth and not leaving out any piece of it because the last your lawyer can’t help you. If they’re only, if they only have half of the facts and in fact it could hurt your case and hurt your credibility and hurt your lawyer’s credibility. If they’re, you know, taking a certain position or making a strategy based on misinformation.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. That’s a great point. I mean, a lawyer can’t advise you properly. If the lawyer doesn’t have the entire story, um, especially in family law, you know, people may be ashamed to talk about affairs that they have had, or other types of marital misconduct that they’ve engaged in. But if the other side knows about it, they’re certainly going to tell their attorney about it. And it’s not good if your own attorney is blindsided by the information later. Um, so when in doubt be truthful with your attorney and it will serve you well.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah. You know, I have, and we all have, um, people who, for whatever reason want to strategize on their own, but let me help you, let me do the strategy and, and in conjunction with you form a strategy for your case, but it is counterproductive if I don’t have all of the facts that I need to create that strategy and it ends up blowing up.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. I think that leads to another good tip. Um, more information is better than less information. Um, some folks are not sure what level of detail to share with their attorney. I always tell folks, you know, share it all. And part of our job as your, you know, representation is to parse through that information and determine what’s relevant and what’s not, but if there’s an important detail and you don’t tell me, I’m not a mind reader and I’m going to know about it. And so always err on the side of more information.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah. And you know, I, and this will go to one of our later points, Jamie, but I, it is always helpful when our clients are organized and if they present information, even just the background facts of their case, um, in a methodical way, like for example, an Excel spreadsheet, you know, this is the, this is what happened. This is the timeline of events so that I can reference back to it. Um, I will not always be able to recall off the top of my head, everything that happened and when, and so it is very helpful for me not to have to dig through a lot of different documents to find that information. And if I have it in one central location, um, for example, a timeline and with that references supporting documents, or if you present me with the documents that I’ve requested in an organized fashion, and tell me what page I can find this information on it is going to really help me, which in turn will help you.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. That’s a great point. Um, you know, just listening to what you were saying, it made me think of a list of the marital property. Um, if you could just put that list together for your family law attorney, it’s invaluable, you know, we don’t know what you and your spouse own, and sometimes you may not know everything either, but if you are able to put together a list of what you know, is there that’s really helpful for us, um, in moving your case forward.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah. And again, we, a lot of times we’ll have phone calls with folks when it is maybe a complicated situation, or we’re trying to explain the law to you, but often when you are giving us information, it’s really helpful for us to put it in writing. Because like I said, number one, I can read it at any time. Um, you know, and number two, I can reference back to it. And so email is a preferred method of communication for you communicating facts to me, because then I can ask you questions based on your email that I may not think to ask in real time if we’re on the, on the phone.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. And I was going to say a lot of times when we are trying to advise a family law client about a particular issue, there is a lot of back and forth that is required. You will give us a certain amount of information. And as we read through that information, or you tell us that information, we’re going to want to ask you questions because inevitably there are going to be details that are going to affect how we advise you. And so a lot of times we find it is more cost-effective for the client. If we can do those sorts of things over the phone, because it is in real time and we can have that back and forth. But then after that phone call, if it’s a really important legal issue and something that we really want to make sure you understand, we may also put that in writing to you just to recap what that conversation was so that you can refer back to it later on. If you have questions about what advice we gave you.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah. So there, you know, I think that that a lot of people struggle with knowing when to call versus when to email your lawyer and what is more cost effective. And, you know, a lot of it, you know, like Jamie said, when it’s a very detailed and complex issue, it’s more efficient to have a phone call, um, to explain that and to be able to ask the questions. Um, and a lot of it is personal preference, too. Some people just don’t like to email and they find it cumbersome and they prefer to just hop on a phone call. And so, you know, understanding how you best communicate is important and making sure that that aligns with your lawyer’s communication style is important too.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. And I also think understanding the lawyer’s policy for returning phone calls and returning emails is important. I think that sometimes especially new clients can become dissatisfied if they don’t understand what is normal for them to receive a return communication. Right. Um, I don’t know about you, but if I get an email from a client provided that I am not in court, I try to return that email within 24 hours. Um, same with voicemail messages. I try to make sure my folks get a call back within 24 hours. If I am in court or mediation or deposition or some other proceeding that is going to take me away from my email for a significant period of time, I try to make sure that I have an out of office message on my email so that if I receive one, the person knows, Hey, I’m not going to get a response for a couple of days. Um, and sometimes as part of that, I might leave a little message that if they need immediate assistance, they can contact my paralegal that way they do have a point of contact. Um, but I think it’s really important to set expectations for how the communication will work,
Carrie Tortora: Adding to that. Um, you know, you might send your lawyer an email and not hear back from, and sometimes lawyers, we get so busy working on our client’s cases that we’ve failed to update them on what we’re doing. And so we may be working on your case. We may be thinking about strategy for your case, and you don’t hear from us and you assume that nothing is going on and you start to panic because a court date is coming up. And so sometimes there’s just this communication gap or a failure to communicate. And, and a lot of people get things that they’re in a, lawyer’s not working for them. And so I, I recommend that if you have questions and, and you want to know what’s going on, you reach out and say, what’s going on. In my case, I’d like to schedule a phone call to discuss it. And so then that will, you know, sort of prompt your lawyer to say, Oh yeah, I need to take, you know, slow down and update you on what’s going on. And I mean, it, it is we, as lawyers should be updating you routinely all the time, but sometimes it’s not that we’re not paying attention to your case. Sometimes it’s just that we’re doing the work that we know to do, and maybe not doing as good a job as we should of informing you of what’s going on.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, that’s a really great point. Um, I also think it’s important, especially for the family law client, because they are going through such an emotional time to understand what is an emergency and what isn’t an emergency, um, not to discount anyone’s feelings, but when you’re going through a separation, you’re sort of in fight or flight mode and everything can feel like an emergency to you. A very small issue may send you over the edge and you may think that you need to speak to your lawyer immediately. Um, your family law attorney is going to have a really good idea about what issues are actually emergencies and need prompt attention and those which while they are important are not true emergencies and can maybe wait a little bit longer. And so sometimes the lawyer has to triage cases, just like they do in the emergency room at the hospital.
And we have to determine which client has the greatest need at the moment. And sometimes, you know, it doesn’t feel good to wait in line, so to speak and you want to make sure that you’re being heard. And so I think that’s another one of those situations where if you believe that you have an emergency and you can not get in touch with your lawyer, make sure you contact the office and see if there’s someone else you can talk to. Maybe there’s another attorney who works on the case with your lawyer. Maybe there’s a paralegal. Maybe there’s a legal assistant, you know, someone else that you can tell your situation to and, um, they help make a decision about whether or not immediate action needs to be taken.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah, absolutely. Yeah. It’s like, you know, the nurse line at the doctor’s office, if you can get, if you can access the nurse line and the nurse can get in touch with a doctor for you, it’s sort of an analogous situation. Um, and the other thing that we often see, um, I mean, it is true that cases can require a lot of, um, more time and attention and work on the front end, just because maybe you’re just getting separated and you’re trying to figure out a custody schedule, or you’re trying to figure out how the money is going to work. And so it is true that, um, cases require a lot, can require more attention in the beginning, but we do see people having a lot of calls and a lot of emails with their lawyer and they really are spending a lot of money and those first couple, three, four weeks or so. And so that can be shocking for people who have never dealt with a lawyer before and are not used to seeing that. And so sometimes when your lawyer doesn’t necessarily respond to you immediately, it’s because he or she is sort of trying to minimize the communication. And in order to preserve your, you know, attorney fees to make you dumb last for the duration of your case.
Jaime Davis: So that’s a really great segue into our next topic. Um, your lawyer has been working on your case for a few weeks. You get that first bill and it’s higher than you thought it would be. Carrie, what tips do you have for helping a person manage their legal fees?
Carrie Tortora: Well, one of the ones is, um, what we’ve already discussed is, um, try to be as organized as you can. And that’s for in providing information to your lawyer, we are going to be asking you for a ton of statements, bank statements, credit card statements, statements, showing your assets and your debts and your income information. And so the more organized you can send those documents to us electronically and labeled correctly, um, you know, that is going to help us be able to review them quickly. Um, and information, like I said before, maybe an Excel spreadsheet, maybe an email, um, with, you know, consolidated information in it. Um, you know, we, we bill by the hour and so you are paying for our time and not necessarily our results. And I, I think that that’s important to keep in mind because every time you contact the, any email that you send is going to be another email that we bill for to read.
And so if you can consolidate your questions in one email, then that’s going to be more cost effective for you, for us to read one email as opposed to six different emails throughout the day, or, you know, so I think it’s important to keep in mind the billing structure of your lawyer when you’re interacting with him or Mr. Him or her. Um, and remember that we bill most lawyers, bill and increments of intense of an hour. So we bill every six minutes. Um, and so the more you can pack into that time with questions, the better results you’re gonna get for the money that you spend.
Jaime Davis: And that holds true with phone calls too. Um, I love talking to my clients. That’s one of the main reasons I do this job. I like working with people. I like to try to help them, um, come up with good solutions to their family law related problems, but phone calls can get expensive if they are not organized and for a specific purpose. So I try to tell my clients at the beginning of our work together, that I am happy to talk to you. If you want to call me, I want to hear from you. Um, but it’s going to be more cost-effective for you. If we limit our phone calls to mainly the legal issues in the case. Um, again, divorce is a very, very emotional process. And a lot of times there are a lot of feelings to process and talk through, but it can often be more cost-effective if the client does that with a therapist, rather than with their lawyer and save those legal fees for discussing, um, the more, you know, legal aspects of the case.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah. I mean, it is everything about divorce is unfair. You know, the, the process is unfair. It, the court system is not ideal. You know, it’s peep, no one walks away from a divorce feeling victory or are very few people do. And so it’s easy to get bogged down in venting and, and we know it, you know, we live it and we, and we hear it from our clients and we’re frustrated on their behalf too, but, um, it’s expensive to vent to your family it’s to your lawyer. Um, and so if that is something that you choose to do, just understand and keep in mind the costs, the associated costs, you know, on the flip side, there are, who don’t want to communicate for that very reason. And, and that presents its own set of challenges because we do need a certain level of information. And so we don’t hear from you, or we don’t have that information that we need, or, you know, we don’t have your authorization to move forward with the next step. Then it can end up costing you more in the long run than responding and, you know, working, working with us to move your case along.
Jaime Davis: Yeah, that is a really great point. Um, and I think it helps move us along to our next topic. What tips do you have for people to help them maintain their sanity during what can seem a never ending and very frustrating process?
Carrie Tortora: I always like to break it down into the day to day, you know, we’re not gonna, we’re not gonna accomplish what can sometimes be a very complex financial transaction and what is almost always a very complex emotional transaction in, in one day. And we’re going to have to break this down into baby steps and take it one day at a time and we’re just going to do the next right thing every time. And so I often advise clients, you know, they asked me what is going to happen or what, what is this going? What is the impact of this going to be, or, or, or how can we, you know, get from point a to point B. And I say to them, you know, there’s going to be a lot of challenges and a lot of facts that will influence how your case goes. And so while we do want to maintain an overall strategy, we also want to be flexible and understand that it really is a day to day, you know, decision point.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. I mean, it is impossible to predict with any level of certainty. You know, what’s going to happen a year from now, five years from now. And I think folks can get overwhelmed with big picture thinking as they are going through a separation. And when you get overwhelmed, you become paralyzed and not able to make even the smallest of decisions. And so I try to get folks to focus on the right now. Okay. So you come to us, you’re a dependent spouse. Your spouse has stopped paying the bills. Okay. Well, what bills do we need to get paid for this month? Let’s worry about that first. And then we can think about the bigger picture and okay, well, what should your alimony be moving forward for five years from now? Um, likewise with custody schedules, if it’s January, it can be cumbersome to be worried about what the Christmas schedule is going to be for the following December. Let’s figure out what the custody schedule is going to be for this weekend. And then we’ll talk about this month and then maybe we can come up with an overall custody schedule that works for your family. And as part of that, we’ll figure out Christmas. And by then some time will have passed and part of the emotion will have subsided and it may not be as big of a hot button issue for you. Um, so I agree with you, Carrie, trying to take baby steps is the best way to go through this process.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah. And you mentioned this before Jamie, but, um, finding a therapist, you know, we don’t mean to be condescending to our clients when we suggest that they get a therapist, we suggest it to everyone who walks through our doors, because it’s for your benefit psychologically, mentally, emotionally, and financially, um, that you have a person who can listen to you and help you process what’s going on in your life and put you in a position to better eat, better, be able to make those decisions because you’re going to have some hard decisions coming up, you know, like, are you, you’re in mediation? Do you settle? Can you accept this, uh, you know, off the settlement offer? And so the, if the more self-worth you can do to get yourself in a place of acceptance, um, will serve you very well in deciding what to do about your future,
Jaime Davis: Right. Because as attorneys, there were some decisions that we just can’t make for our clients. You know, we can’t tell our clients what custody schedule to accept. We can’t tell our clients what assets exist in their merit marital estate sometimes. Um, we really need our clients to be healthy so that they can participate in the process and help us help them.
Carrie Tortora: Yeah, our role and our job is to be advisors. And we’re here to tell you the pros and cons of certain options, what your options are, the pros and cons of those options. You know, maybe we’ll make recommendations, but ultimately it’s not our decision. It’s not our lives life. So, you know, we need for our clients to be in a state of mind that they can make some really tough decisions and you need your team. You know, you need your therapist, you need potentially a financial advisor, and then you need your lawyer. And so it’s not just one of those people is able to serve all of those roles. And so, you know, understanding what your lawyer’s role is, I think will help you get the most out of your relationship.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. That’s a great point, Carrie. I think we’ve covered most areas of working with your family law attorney, but there is one more that I would like to touch on. Um, at some point during a family law case, your attorney is going to ask you to get together and evidence, Carrie, what tips do you have to make the document production process go more smoothly.
Carrie Tortora: We want what we want when we want it, you know? And so the more timely, you know, that you can get us document, um, so that we can begin reviewing those and putting together our spreadsheets and analysis. Um, that’s helpful. And I think I’ve touched on it before, you know, the more organized you can be when producing your documents the better, um, at, you know, these days, most we’re exchanging documents with clients electronically through a secure platform, like share file or Dropbox. And so, um, that’s what our firm is doing, but not all firms are doing that. Some are still, you know, you can bring paper to the office, um, which is fine to some people. That’s just how they receive the statements and that’s their comfort level, but organize it in a, in a way that is better for, you know, your lawyer to be able to access and look through.
Jaime Davis: Yeah. And one point I can’t stress enough if your attorney requests, for example, bank statements, they’re asking for them because they really need the bank statements. Um, you will save yourself time and money in terms of legal fees. If you were able to put together exactly what the attorney has asked you to put together. So if your lawyer asks you to bring in six months of your bank account statements, um, they don’t want download of your data. A screenshot’s not going to cut it. And just the first page of a bank statement is not going to be enough. So if on that first pass, you can make a, you know, great effort to put together what they’ve requested, you will save yourself, like I said, time and money in the long run.
Well, Carrie, before we end our call today, do you have any more tips for how to work with your family law attorney?
Carrie Tortora: I mean, I think the overarching, um, you know, important take away is that you need to be able to trust your lawyer and you may have a great lawyer, but if you don’t trust that they’re looking out for you or that, you know, they’re handling your case in an effective and cost efficient manner, then it is time for you to maybe move on to another lawyer. You know, once that trust is law, it’s important for you or your lawyer to recognize that and sort of end the relationship become before it becomes toxic or not healthy for either one of you. Um, and so it’s just like any, again, like any working relationship, um, you feel comfortable that your lawyer has your best interests and is working towards those. It’s keeping you in the loop and is, you know, if you don’t understand, the bill is willing to sit down and discuss the bill with you. I think, you know, those are sort of the summary takeaways,
Jaime Davis:: Right. That is a great point. And thank you so much for joining me today. If any of our listeners would like to contact you, what is the best way for them to reach you?
Carrie Tortora: Well, you can call the office of course. It’s (919) 832-8488. Our website is divorceistough.com. And my email is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jaime Davis: I hope you all found this episode of “A Year and a Day” to be helpful. If you have any questions or comments, I would love to hear from you. You can email me at email@example.com. As a reminder, while in my role as a lawyer, my job is to give folks legal advice. The purpose of this podcast is not to do that. This podcast is for general informational purposes only, should not be used as legal advice, and is specific to the law in North Carolina. If you have questions before you take any action, you should consult with a lawyer who is licensed in your state.