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What should I ask at the initial consultation?

To the extent the attorney fails to cover these points, you should ask how the divorce procedure works, how long it will take, how available the lawyer is, how many cases he has tried, how many he has handled (many cases settle without ever going to trial), how much it will cost, how charges are determined, whether you are billed for telephone calls, who else will be working on your case, whether you will have to go to court, what happens if you reconcile, what information the lawyer needs from you.

What is a retainer?

Many lawyers will not represent you unless you pay a lump sum fee to the lawyer before he begins doing any work. This fee is called a retainer, because, by paying the fee, you have retained that lawyer to work for you. When the attorney works on your case, he subtracts from the retainer his hourly billing rate until the retainer is used up. For example, if you pay a lawyer $2,500 and his billing rate is $100 an hour, your retainer will be used up after 25 hours. Some lawyers will then bill you on a monthly basis for additional work, others will ask you for a new lump sum fee.

The arrangements you and your lawyer reach should be in writing, in a document called a "retainer agreement." Be sure you understand each term before you sign the retainer agreement. Know what happens if you can't afford to pay the lawyer after the retainer is used up.

In addition to legal services, a lawyer may use the retainer to pay for disbursements, such as photocopies, postage and court fees. In addition, if a court reporter or a process server (a person who, for a fee, presents legal papers to another person) is needed in your case, the lawyer may use the retainer to pay for those services or he may ask you to pay them directly to the provider of services. Be sure that is spelled out in the retainer agreement as well. Even though both sums will eventually be paid by you, the source of the funds may affect your cash flow.

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