The “Do’s and Don’t’s” of the Initial Family Law Consultation

Deciding to pick up the phone and make that dreaded first call when you feel the time is right to contact an attorney is a petrifying moment.  It’s one of those times in your life where you just have to take the plunge, dial the phone and make the call.

Once you’ve decided on the attorney you want to meet with, a sense of relief may come over you… until the day of the appointment. Panic, fear, confusion, hurt and uncertainty are all natural expectations that an experienced attorney will recognize and deal with when you arrive.  But don’t let your apprehension overcome you. You made the call. You scheduled the appointment.  It’s time. You know meeting with the attorney is the right thing to do.

More often than not, the attorney is going to meet you when you are at your worst, especially in a new divorce consultation. That’s expected.  You wouldn’t be at the law office if things were rosy and life was grand.  An experienced family law attorney knows that you are vulnerable, emotionally drained, and sadly, sometimes physically abused.  The attorney will help guide you through the initial process, help you cope with your emotional well being, and offer suggestions to help you make yourself “a better you” as the process proceeds, and most important, be the partner your attorney will need to effectively advocate for you throughout the divorce or post-decree proceedings.

In order to make the most out of the initial meeting with your attorney, there are a few simple rules that will help you, the client, and your attorney make the most out of the initial consultation.  Remember, just as you are interviewing the attorney, the attorney is interviewing you as well.  You are both evaluating each other to determine if the two of you are a “proper fit” for each other.  Just as you are gauging the attorney’s knowledge, demeanor, compassion and strategy, the attorney is also evaluating you to determine what type of witness you may be, your candor and truthfulness, and your ability to be an effective partner throughout the proceedings.  If you’re not comfortable with what you’re seeing or hearing, don’t hire this attorney. But by the same token, if the attorney is not comfortable with you, the attorney is under no obligation to accept your case or you as a client.  It’s the proverbial “two way street;” you both have to want to work together, feel comfortable with each other and be on the same page in order to be successful in your case and to have a successful attorney/client relationship.

When preparing for the initial consultation, there are a few “Do’s and Don’t’s” that will make the initial consultation less stressful for you, and more beneficial to both you and the attorney. Of course, some law offices may have different procedures and practices, so it’s a good idea to ask when you make the initial appointment to see if there are any procedures you should know before you have your first meeting, especially if there will be a charge for the initial consultation. Some of the suggested “Do’s and Don’t’s” that our law office adheres to are:

For the Initial Consultation, DON’T:

 Don’t be offended if there is a charge for the initial consultation.  The lawyer’s time is how he or she makes their living and you are receiving a professional service. The time the lawyer spends with you could have been spent on another case for which he or she could be getting paid, so it is not out of the ordinary to expect to pay for the initial consultation.  Our firm, like many others, has a discounted rate for the first hour consultation. The information you receive will be well worth the fee, not to mention that it may be a significant stress reliever as you move forward. Don’t forget:  “You get what you pay for…”

• Don’t bring a friend or family member with you for moral support.  That person cannot participate in the initial conference due to confidentiality requirements and ethical concerns of the attorney.  A friend or family member has nothing to contribute to the initial conference.  If they have something relevant to provide to your case, the attorney will, undoubtedly, interview them later to make that determination.  The attorney wants to talk to you, only, at the initial consultation because you have the pertinent information, not your friend or family member.

• Perhaps even more important than not bringing friends or family members with you to the initial appointment is don’t bring children with you.  Because of the sensitive discussions that may occur during your initial consultation, children should not be present.  Also, there is no place for children to stay while you are meeting with the attorney other than the waiting room/reception area.  Law office staff have jobs to do and providing child care for you is not in their job description, nor should it be their responsibility to entertain your child/children during this very important meeting.  This meeting is a job interview, for both you and the attorney.  Would you take your children to a job interview?  You shouldn’t bring your children to the initial consultation either.

• Don’t be late, or just not show up.  Just as you will expect to receive courtesy from the attorney and the law office staff, the same courtesy should be extended to them from you.  If you see that you are going to be late, call the law office and let them know.  If you need to cancel the appointment for whatever reason, have the courtesy to call the office and cancel.  Perhaps someone else can use that appointment time if you can’t make it, or just aren’t ready to take that step.

• Don’t withhold any information or facts, even if it may be embarrassing.  An experienced attorney will be able to advise you as to what is relevant or not, and leaving out even the simplest fact or occurrence may have a devastating impact on your case.

• Conversely, don’t embellish or exaggerate facts or occurrences to help bolster your case.  By not being completely honest with your attorney, it may affect how you are represented, the strategies taken, or even worse, bring your credibility into question. Truthfulness is always the most important aspect of your case, even if it hurts.

• Although everyone wants to make a good first impression, there is no need to “dress up” for the initial consultation. Wear what you feel comfortable in because you may be having an uncomfortable, emotional and stressful discussion for the next one to two hours. Also, don’t over indulge in fragrances; perfumes or colognes.  Many people have allergies to certain fragrances, and although you may like to smell good, overpowering perfumes and colognes can distract from a meaningful and productive initial conference.  Don’t forget that you will be meeting in a closed room; either the attorney’s office or a conference room that can quickly become overwhelmed with an overpowering fragrance.

• Last, but certainly not least, don’t rely on what you read on the internet or what your friends tell you. The internet can be a very valuable tool, but can also be full of misinformation and vague, often confusing, interpretations of the law. Just as you wouldn’t rely on a medical website to diagnose a serious medical problem, don’t rely on the internet to tell you what the law is, or how it would be applied in your particular case.  Additionally, friends can be well meaning, however, their case is not yours.  Remember that just as every individual is different, every case is different.  Your particular circumstances, your spouse, and even the personality of opposing counsel will sometimes dictate how your case should be handled strategically.  Do not be overly concerned about what “my friend so and so got” or “my friend said.” Your friend, and the internet, cannot take the place of the attorney you are about to meet with, as the attorney will tailor the advice you receive based on your individual facts and circumstances.

Now that you know what not to do before the initial consultation occurs and after it begins, here are a few helpful items to assist you in being a well prepared client as the initial consultation approaches:

For the Initial Consultation, DO:

• Do come prepared with specific detailed information.  Social security numbers, birth dates, date of marriage, health insurance costs for both you (individually) and your children, child care costs, expenses for special medical needs for either you and/or your children, college costs for either you and/or your children, two years of tax returns, four pay stubs showing year to date earnings, a list of personal property owned by you and your spouse (or with someone else, if applicable), a complete copy of your pre-nuptial agreement (if applicable), appraisals for real estate or personal property, police reports and/or protective orders (if applicable), vehicle information, and, most important, any court pleadings or prior court orders that may have been entered in your case.

• Do tell the attorney if you are active with text messaging and/or on social media.  There is a good chance that the attorney will advise you to seriously curtail your activity with text messaging and on social media, if not cease it completely.  If there is anything that you have texted or posted about your spouse, friends, relatives, in-laws, etc., it may be wise to print your texts and posts and provide a copy to the attorney and refrain from texting and posting anything else until your case is concluded.  Social media posts, and especially text messages, are now considered admissible evidence in some courts, so let your attorney know, up front, if there are texts and/or posts that may be detrimental to your case.

• If you are comfortable with the attorney, and the attorney accepts your case, and you as a client, do read the Employment Agreement carefully and in its entirety. What is the retainer? What are the court costs? What is the hourly rate? What happens when my retainer is depleted? Will my spouse be responsible to reimburse me for my fees?  How much is charged for a phone call? How much is charged for a letter or email? Is there a different hourly rate for appearing in court opposed to office work? Am I charged for photocopies? Am I charged for postage? Is there a different hourly rate for the attorney, paralegal, or other staff members?  When am I billed? When is my bill due?  These are all legitimate questions that should be answered at the inception of the attorney/client relationship. Knowing the answers to these questions will help avoid an uncomfortable situation for both you and your attorney as your case and relationship progresses.

• The most important thing you can do in preparation for the initial consultation is bring a list of questions.  We’ve all heard the old adage “there’s no such thing as a stupid question.”  This is definitely true at the initial consultation.  Your attorney knows that you’re not an attorney with his or her legal knowledge and experience and that your head is probably spinning with nervousness, worry and concern; both legal and personal.  Ask the question… you deserve an answer, you need the answer. Being able to communicate well with your attorney always begins at the initial consultation.  Attorneys appreciate clients would want to be well informed.  Be that client!

Making the call to schedule your initial consultation is never an easy task.  You may have thought about doing it for a long time, or, unfortunately, a sudden need to hire counsel has arisen.  Regardless of how long it took you to make the call, you’ve made it, the appointment is scheduled and the hard first step is over.  To make the next step less stressful, and more meaningful and productive when you meet with the attorney, follow these simple guidelines and you’ll be well on your way to a successful initial consultation and an even more successful attorney/client relationship.

Good luck!

Indiana’s Parenting Time “Nightmare Before Christmas”

It’s that time of year again. People run all over town to do their Christmas shopping, to decorate their homes, and attend holiday parties to spread cheer among their friends and themselves. However, this is also the worst time of year for lawyers, parents, and most importantly, children, because of what is known around our office as “Indiana’s Parenting Time ‘Nightmare before Christmas.’ ”

A number of years ago, some brilliant (and I say “brilliant” both literally and sarcastically) people put together what is known as Indiana’s “Parenting Time Guidelines” (guidelines that apply in all legal custody cases to assure that children have frequent and meaningful contact with each parent).  Although these are to be utilized as “guidelines,” they are far from it.  Many lawyers give copies of the guidelines to their clients without guidance on how to apply them, and the clients (or those who act as their own counsel and search the Internet), utilize the guidelines as the Bible of Parenting Time; no exceptions, no deviations, no thought or consideration to the consequences of how they affect who the Guidelines are suppose to protect: the children.

Although the parenting time guidelines provide guidance on many issues (most of which should be common sense), the one area that creates the most confusion for clients, and often times lawyers, is the portion that addresses Christmas Parenting Time for parents with their children.

Christmas Break is supposed to be a time when children are happy with the expectation of gifts, seeing family and friends, and most importantly to them, not going to school. However, the revolving door contained in the Christmas Break provisions of the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines create not only a nightmare for children, but a nightmare for parents and attorneys alike.

My practice is primarily based out of Porter County, Indiana. Porter County has six school districts, most of them on the same Christmas vacation schedule.  However, due to the Indiana Parenting Time Guidelines and how they cause children to be bounced around during their two-week Christmas break, the nightmare occurs for parents and attorneys who must get out calendars, calculators, slide rules, iPads and many other devices in order to simply figure out how the children are going to be shuffled about during their Christmas vacation.

The confusing (and oftentimes, disastrous) pertinent parts of the IPTG provide:

D. HOLIDAY PARENTING TIME SCHEDULE
2 B. Christmas Vacation.
One-half of the period which will begin at 8:00 P.M. on the evening the child is released from school and continues to December 30 at 7:00 P.M. If the parents cannot agree on the division of this period, the custodial parent shall have the first half in even-numbered years. In those years when Christmas does not fall in a parent’s week, that parent shall have the child from Noon to 9:00 P.M. on Christmas Day. The winter vacation period shall apply to pre-school children and shall be determined by the vacation period of the public grade school in the custodial parent’s school district.

2 C. Holidays.
In years ending with an even number, the non-custodial parent shall exercise the following parenting time:
[1] New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day. (The date of the new year will determine odd or even year).
From December 30th at 7:00 P.M to 7:00 P.M. of the evening before school resumes.

Huh?????

Based upon Indiana’s Parenting Time Guidelines and the main school districts of Porter County’s vacation time, as well as the majority of the other school districts in the State of Indiana, the once-deciphered guideline schedule for division of children causes the following “bouncing” to occur:

(Last day of school: December 21, 2012 – School Resumes: January 7, 2013)

Custodial Parent:
(a) Friday, December 21 from 8:00 PM until Tuesday, December 25 (Christmas Day) at 12:00 Noon, and
(b) Tuesday, December 25 at 9:00 PM until Wednesday, December 26 at 3:00 PM, and
(c) Sunday, December 30 from 7:00 PM until Sunday, January 6 at 7:00 PM.

Non-Custodial Parent:
(a) Tuesday, December 25 (Christmas Day)  from 12:00 Noon until Tuesday, December 25 (Christmas Day) at 9:00 PM, and,
(b) Wednesday, December 26 at 3:00 PM until Sunday, December 30 at 7:00 PM.

*** THIS ALSO APPLIES TO PRE-SCHOOL CHILDREN AND IS GOVERNED BY THE SCHOOL DISTRICT IN WHICH THEY RESIDE***

Pack your bags, kids… and leave them packed until New Year’s Eve because you and your suitcases will be travelling between Mom’s house and Dad’s house more in the next few weeks than a steamer trunk traveled the Atlantic Ocean.

Now, don’t be fooled by the phrase in the Guideline “One-half of the period… .”  This year (odd or even… this break counts as an “odd”) provides for the custodial parent to have the time from December 30 until the night before school begins, so in actuality, the custodial parent has the children 13 days compared to the non-custodial parent’s 6 days; one of which is 9 hours on Christmas Day.

Five back-and forths in a short period of time?  That makes a lot of sense.  Yet parents don’t care. If I had the proverbial nickel for every time in my nearly 30 years of practicing Family Law that I heard, “It’s MY time, I want it!” I’d be sipping scotch on the rocks on the beach outside my house in St. Maarten.  But I don’t have those nickels, I don’t have a house in the Carribean, and already, the phone calls have started asking “When do I get my kids for Christmas?”

Thank God the scotch is readily available this time of year, even if the nickels and beach house aren’t.

Wait a minute… isn’t the “Holiday Season” and the associated break from school suppose to be for the children?  Isn’t that a time when they are suppose to be happy and having fun?  Santa, snow-persons (politically correct, I believe), movies, junk food and sleeping in?

Nope!  This is another excuse for misguided parents to jab at one another, cause needless and unwanted turmoil, and drive their lawyers crazy with fights over “She’s getting 12 more minutes than I am” or “My family always celebrates on Christmas Eve and he won’t let me have them.”  On and on it goes… where these parents will stop, nobody knows.

Indiana has a draft of “revised” Parenting Time Guidelines that is floating around in limbo.  They’ve been circulated for nearly nine months, but for some reason, can’t be/haven’t been adopted.  Why? Because the professionals who know what’s best for children can’t agree on what’s best for Indiana’s children.  Sound familiar?

If they are ever adopted, the Christmas Vacation merry-go-round may finally come to an end. The mystery draft has the following solution to ending the constant back and forth:

B. Christmas Vacation.
The Christmas  vacation shall be defined as beginning on the last day of school and ending the last day before school begins again.    Absent agreement of the parties, the first half of the period will begin two hours after the child is released from school.  The second half of the period will end at 6:00 p.m. on the day before school begins again.
Each party will receive one half (1/2) of the total days of the Christmas vacation, on an alternating basis as follows:
1.In even numbered years, the custodial parent shall have the first one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation and non-custodial parent shall have the second one half (1/2) of the Christmas vacation.
2.In odd numbered years, the non-custodial parent shall have the first one half (1/2) of the Christmas  vacation and custodial parent shall have the second one half (1/2) of the Christmas  vacation.
3. In those years when Christmas does not fall in a parent’s week, that parent shall have the child(ren) from Noon to 9:00 P.M. on Christmas Day.
4. No exchanges under this portion of the rule shall occur between 9:00 p.m. and 8:00 a.m., absent agreement of the parties.

New Year’s Eve and New Year’s day shall not be considered separate holidays under the Parenting Time Guidelines.

A little more simple? Absolutely. Less suitcase mileage?  Finally! Will parents still find ways to fight about the breakdown of time and count their minutes to make sure the other parent doesn’t get a few seconds more?  Most likely.  Will lawyers still have to deal with parents arguing over the amount of time they demand over the Christmas holiday, even though most of the parents will still have to go to their own daily job and not be able to actually spend any extra time with their children after all (oh no… here comes the “First Right of Refusal” fights!)? Sadly, yes.

As Family Law attorneys, it is our job to help guide our clients through rocky times.  However, we can’t properly guide them if we don’t explain the road map we give them; simply handing them a copy of Parenting Time Guidelines and saying “Read the book… Good Luck!” is not enough.  On the other hand, if the road map we give them is so confusing and leads to more hazards than assistance, it’s the responsibility of the drafters of the revised guidelines to get them finished, get them approved, and make them simple enough for everyone to understand and apply.

The solution to Indiana’s “Nightmare Before Christmas” can be solved with a few simple steps that end with the same conclusion:

1. The new Parenting Time Guidelines that appear to address a more reasonable division of the Christmas Break need to be approved NOW; keeping in mind, not what’s best for the parents, but what’s best for the children,

2.  Parents need to AGREE on how to divide the time their children have off from school for the holidays, long before December 20 each year; keeping in mind, not what’s best for the parents, but what’s best for the children,

3.  Family Law attorneys need to better explain the Guidelines to their clients and not just hand them a copy, wish them well, and send them on their way; keeping in mind, not what’s best for the parents, but what’s best for the children, and

4.  Drafters, attorneys and parents MUST realize that the Christmas Holiday Break, as well as all other parenting time, is a time for the children.  Petty differences over minutes and overnights should be put aside… THAT is what is best for the children.

The drafters of the new guidelines need to act quickly in making their final revisions.  Lawyers need to provide input as to what we see in the field as reality, not what “studies show” or “other states have done… .”  The Indiana Supreme Court needs to promulgate the new guidelines as soon as possible so holiday issues have more clarity and resolution in 2013.  But most importantly, everyone involved in the Family Law field has to realize that quality parenting time does not equate to hours, minutes and overnights with a child.  Quality parenting time is what is done during the time a parent and child are together.  As soon as attorneys, at the commencement of a case, start advising their clients to look at the parent’s time with their children as a precious commodity, instead of “time of possession,” everyone will be better served, especially the most important people of all… the children.