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The Initial Divorce Interview -- What Do I Do?

Every time you meet a potential new client for the first time, it feels like a job interview. Both you and the client are sizing each other up to determine if you want to work together. Therefore, it is very important to make a good first impression. It is also essential to be yourself while showing as much compassion as you can in this very stressful time.
Everyone handles the first interview differently. Some attorneys choose to send forms and/or requests for information prior to the meeting so that the potential client comes prepared. Other attorneys prefer the first meeting to be more informal, allowing both parties time to get to know each other. Personally, I prefer the latter approach.
Many potential clients like to interview several attorneys before beginning a divorce proceeding. Often, this is the first time in the person’s life in which they have ever needed a lawyer. On top of being embarrassed or angry about their marital situation, the person is nervous about beginning this very difficult and costly process of ending their marriage. Some clients, on the other hand, like to meet with several attorneys in order to either get the answers they are looking for or to make it so that their spouse cannot hire you because of a conflict of interest.
At the first meeting, and in every subsequent contact with your client, you will do something that law school did not prepare you for: you will be a counselor in the true sense of the word. Some clients are very hands on during the process, wishing to maintain control of the situation or just to keep the costs down.  However, the majority of clients really want to relinquish control to you while they are dealing with such an emotional situation. You will find that you spend a great deal of your time listening to complaints. You may not feel that this is pertinent, but it is part of the process. Just remember that the client does not always want you to “fix” things. Many times they just want an objective listener. This is especially true at the initial interview.
At the first meeting, it is important to let the client steer the conversation in the beginning to allow time to get more comfortable. Many clients are reluctant to even tell the receptionist that they want a meeting to discuss a divorce, and they are certainly not ready to open up and discuss the details of their marriage, their financial status, etc. to a stranger. When the time is right, explain the differences between a divorce and a dissolution, legal separation, etc. Verbally go through the legal process and the expected timeline for completion. Be sure to explain how important it is for the client to provide all necessary documentation requested and to tell the truth about everything. (This does not mean that they will be honest about everything, but it is still important to explain your expectations and potential repercussions for withholding information.) Then, allow time for the potential client to ask questions. At this point, the person should be comfortable enough to discuss any issues they are particularly concerned about.
To wrap up the meeting, ask the client if they are ready to proceed or if they need more time to make this difficult decision. (This way, you are asking if they want to hire you, but it is far less direct.) If the client needs more time, ask if, when, and where they would like for you to contact them. They may be keeping their plans a secret, so you definitely do not want to call their home or workplace without their consent. If the client is ready to proceed, discuss all filing fees, your firm’s fee structure, and the required retainer fee. Then, provide a list and/or forms with all information that you will need for the initial divorce filing. Be sure to schedule a follow-up meeting to go over the information and stress to the client that all of the information is required before any documents can be filed. If, however, the client is unable to pay the retainer fee following the interview, discuss when that can occur and urge them to schedule another appointment for that time.
It may take some time and practice, but you will get more comfortable with the initial divorce interview. Not all meetings will get you hired, but don’t be disappointed. Different clients are looking for different things in an attorney, and it is impossible to know that in advance. Believe it or not, I have actually had people tell me that I am too nice! I have heard other attorneys say they have been told this, as well. Why a potential client would want to pay an attorney to treat them badly is beyond me, but it does happen. Although I hate to lose potential work as much as anyone else, I think these clients would probably not be happy with my work anyway because I cannot change who I am. Therefore, it is probably best that they were honest with me and found someone better suited to their needs. I’m sure that we were both happier in the long run!