Meet your lawyer Part 1
In the first of a two-part blog, I talk about what to expect during an initial appointment with a family lawyer, and why we’re not all as scary as you might think.
I’m aware from meeting with clients over the years that even the idea of going to see a family lawyer for the first time can seem daunting, perhaps even confronting. This is understandable. In a perfect world, no one would choose to spend their limited resources to discuss intimate and often difficult areas of their personal life with a lawyer if they could possibly avoid it.
The anxiety associated when you meet your lawyer may be increased by the fear that as soon as you meet with one, it automatically follows that the next step is a huge and unpleasant war with your ex-partner. And that it will definitely cost a bucket-load.
While it’s sadly true that some cases do end up in intense, uncompromising and highly expensive litigation, fortunately such cases remain a minority. Indeed they can often be avoided by taking sensible steps at the very outset of a separation.
When I meet with a client for the first time, I understand they’re likely to feel apprehensive and uncertain about the future. If the separation is recent, their world may just have turned upside down, and they can no longer make any sense about many aspects of their lives. In those cases I try to assist by breaking down the relevant legal issues into bite size chunks, for example, property settlement, living and spend-time arrangements for children, financial support, child support, divorce, parental responsibility and so on.
However, once clients have told me a bit more about their story, I often find they’re as much concerned about the process towards resolving their matter as they are in me giving them a detailed analysis of their rights or entitlements at the end of the case. In particular, most people would prefer to keep things civil with their ex-partner, or at the very least they want to avoid World War III. And I’ve never once met a client who told me at the outset Let’s drag this thing out for the next 2 years because I really want to pay you a load in legal fees.
With this in mind, when I first meet with a client we often talk as much about the best way of approaching the case rather than getting too stuck into the substantive details. To begin with, this means asking questions such as how they feel about the separation, the nature of their communication with the former partner, questions about their respective personalities and emotional states, and asking, in the big picture sense, what is most important to them and what they value.
Although I like to give a broad sense about what the long-term outcome might look like, that’s not usually the priority in an initial appointment. The exception is usually where a client informs me that they’ve already reached an agreement with their former partner and they just need it formalising legally. In those meetings, it’s a lot easier to jump to the nuts and bolts of an agreement because the hard work in getting there has already been done between the parties.
However if the separation or the dispute is relatively fresh, the emphasis is more about trying to steer the case towards the most appropriate pathway. All things being equal, we usually start with the least acrimonious process and go from there, including giving an indication of the future legal costs for each different process.
Of course, no two cases are exactly the same and the precise nature of an initial appointment will depend on the circumstances. Sometimes I meet with clients for the first time when they’re already mid-way through messy court proceedings in which case the priority is coming up with an overall strategy plan to help deal with the litigation in the most effective way.
By the end of an initial appointment, my aim is to have helped given the client a sense of context about the law and empowered them to make informed decisions about their matter going forward.
In next week’s blog I will talk further about what to expect during an initial appointment, including practical issues and how to prepare for the meeting.
Daniel Myers is a family lawyer at Farrar Gesini Dunn, in our Melbourne office.