One Question, Three Lawyers
Dear Splitopia: Can I call a lawyer to get some general guidance about divorce for free, or will they start charging me the minute they pick up the phone?
Our panel says:
Michael Stutman, family lawyer, New York City: Many lawyers will provide “general advice” in an initial telephone call without charge, but remember the advice is “general.” No two cases are really alike and the results of a divorce case can turn on almost any particular fact. You cannot expect a capable lawyer to really get to know your case well enough in a few minutes on the phone.
Naomi Cahn, law professor, George Washington University: You can definitely call, and you'll probably find some lawyers who are willing to help by giving you very general advice for free. There are also lots of sources online. For example, LawTrades, LegalAdvice.com, LawHelp.org, and ProBono.net are sites that offer free basic legal advice. Each site typically works with lawyers who may be interested in working with you further. RocketLawyer offers to answer a detailed legal question for one fee (under $50 at the time I wrote this post).
You should also know that a lawyer can offer what we call “unbundled legal services,” agreeing to limit the scope of the representation, so you pay only for a particular legal service. You and the lawyer need to agree in advance to what will be done, and, ethically, the limitation must be “reasonable.” So, for example, a lawyer can help you file for divorce, but then not be involved in any other way in your divorce. If you decide this is what you want, then talk to your lawyer about this possibility.
Janice L. Green, family lawyer, Austin, TX: Before you provide any information about your situation to this attorney, give her or her staff the name of your spouse and ask them to check for any conflict of interest. Even though you are not paying for this “general advice” service, you do not want to find yourself talking to an attorney your spouse has met with or retained. Attorneys should do a conflicts check before conferring with you; however, because of the informality of the contact described in your question, you risk that that step being overlooked.
Wendy Paris, real person who got divorced, and author of Splitopia: I absolutely called two lawyers and got a general overview over the phone. I was trying to figure out if we were going to divorce in New Jersey or New York, and got a couple names in each city, and just asked them the differences between the states over the phone. I said up front that I wasn’t ready to hire anyone, but was just trying to figure out if I had the option of filing in either state, and what the difference was. In the end, we moved to California and divorced there, so it didn’t really matter. We did it ourselves in California with help from a drop-in divorce storefront.
About our Panel:
Michael Stutman has more than 30 years of family law experience, handling both settlements and court trials. Michael is immediate past president of the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, New York Chapter. He is also a Fellow of the Academy and serves on its National Board of Governors. Michael is also the author of Divorce in New York: The Legal Process, Your Rights, and What to Expect (Addicus, 2013). You can contact him at: Michael@sasllaw.com
Naomi Cahn is the Harold H. Greene Professor of Law at The George Washington University Law School. She is the co-author, along with law professor June Carbone, of Marriage Markets: How Inequality Is Remaking the American Family (Oxford University Press, 2014) and Red Families Blue Families: Legal Polarization and the Creation of Culture (Oxford University Press, 2010) as well as the leading family law textbook Contemporary Family Law. Her work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Christian Science Monitor and The New Yorker. Find more at: law.gwu.edu.
Janice Green is a family law attorney who has been practicing in Austin, TX, for the past 35 years. She is the author of Divorce After 50: Your Guide to the Unique Legal & Financial Challenges (NOLO, 2013). She is Board Certified in Family Law by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization, a Fellow in the American Academy of Matrimonial Lawyers, and has been named to Best Lawyers in America and as a Texas Monthly Super Lawyer. For the past 10 years, she’s focused exclusively on collaborative divorce. Find more at janicelgreen.com.
Wendy Paris wrote Splitopia: Dispatches from Today's Good Divorce and How to Part Well while going through the first two years of her own divorce, a time period that she and her husband agreed would be the most difficult part of the process. She found that writing about a difficult experience can be a huge aid in coping.
And now, some legalese:
The information in this blog post is provided for general purposes only. It may not reflect the current law in your county and doesn’t replace legal advice. This post is not intended to be a substitute for legal counsel. No attorney-client relationship has been established by reading the post.