I read lots of blogs and articles written by attorneys on how to maximize your first meeting with your divorce attorney. It makes sense. We’ve been through first meetings with clients many times. We know our job is to help you focus on the items that need to be addressed to reach a resolution. That’s why most lawyers try to keep the initial meeting as business-like as possible for the sake of efficiency.
For example, the best use of your first meeting with your attorney is sharing information needed to fill out the required paperwork so we can begin negotiations toward a settlement. At a minimum, you should go to the initial meeting prepared with the following information:
• Family information – names and birth dates for yourself, your spouse, and your children;
• Date and place where you were married;
• Current employment information for you and your spouse.
An additional goal of the first meeting is to give your attorney an accurate understanding of your financial status. To that end, the more of following things you can bring to the first meeting the better. Those items should include:
• Income – Current pay-stubs for yourself and your spouse and last three years of tax returns;
• Expenses – An itemized list of your monthly expenses;
• Assets and Debts – Statements with balances for your mortgage, retirement accounts, brokerage accounts, bank accounts, and credit cards.
With this information in tow, you should also put some thought into your post-divorce life. In other words, what’s important to you? What type of lifestyle do you hope to live? Do you want to stay in the family home? Can you even afford to do so? Or do you want to buy a new home and are wondering if that’s feasible?
It’s always a good idea to write down any questions you might have before meeting with your attorney. Those can include anything and everything—child support, paying for college, music lessons, medical conditions or treatments, etc. Similarly, if you will be paying or receiving spousal support (AKA alimony) be prepared to ask those questions as well.
This is all good advice and there is nothing radical or controversial about these suggestions. That said, keeping things business-like may not be that easy. Most lawyers would prefer that you focus on the facts, not the intangibles. For starters, they prefer to keep the discussion of the details of your breakup brief. “Our marriage is ending due to…then fill in the blank with whatever the reason but is short words or phrases (e.g. infidelity; irreconcilable differences, etc.)
The reality, however, is that when we are dealing with the breakup of a marriage, the emotional component, even when reviewing finances, is always present. That is why I am always prepared to take the time to listen to my client and to try to understand the emotional underpinnings of the events leading up to the divorce. Yes, it can make the first (or subsequent) meetings less efficient from a business perspective. But, strong emotions can sabotage a negotiation as easily as a one-sided settlement proposal. So, my goal is to be in tune with my client’s emotional state.
It is also one of the reasons I so strongly advocate for collaborative divorce with a team of professionals that includes a neutral facilitator who monitors the emotional currents behind many divorce negotiations. The facilitator meets with both spouses individually at the start of the negotiations and is present during the team meetings.
He/she can work with spouses and, if necessary, their attorneys to address the emotional elements of this particular divorce. If there are things that one spouse does that presses the other’s buttons, the divorce coach can work with both parties on how to deal with that constructively. Or, during negotiations, the divorce coach can intervene if emotions start to get the better of one or both parties.
The first meeting with your attorney is both informational on one hand and a getting to know you on the other. It may be the most difficult meeting some people ever take. As such, it should come as no surprise that on occasion efficiency can take the back seat to emotions. So, prepare well for that first meeting.
Collect the information needed in advance and make an effort to focus on providing your attorney with the financial information s/he needs. At the same time, look for an attorney and a process that acknowledges that ending a marriage, no matter how long or mutually agreeable, is going to be an emotional process for the parties involved.