Family

First meeting with family lawyer about setting expectations

By Jennifer Brown, AdvocateDaily.com Senior Editor

Whether it’s to initiate a separation agreement or review a marriage contract, the first meeting with legal counsel should serve as an introduction and to gather information on the matter at hand, says Toronto family lawyer and mediator Jennifer Shuber.

“The initial consult is all about setting up parameters for the future management of expectations,” says Shuber, a senior associate with Gelman & Associates.

“It serves two purposes — one is for the client and lawyer to get a sense of whether they want to work together — to get a feel for how they interact with each other. The second is to get information from the client to advise them, on an initial basis, of what next steps might be taken.”

Shuber says she sets aside about an hour to 90 minutes for the first meeting, which serves to explore the client’s matter and to provide information on what to expect along the way.

“You’re not giving a final opinion on anything,” she tells AdvocateDaily.com. “There’s always a caveat that it’s based on the information that you have at that meeting and that things may change given that parties don’t always know exactly what information is relevant or what needs to be shared with the lawyer.”

“As you move forward in the case you get information that might change your initial opinion, so it’s not something that is set in stone, but it at least gives the client a general idea that these are the issues and these are different ways of managing it,” Shuber explains.

After that, there is a discussion of what the lawyer sees as the individual’s option to proceed from a legal perspective.

“Under that substrata, there is some legal advice provided by way of substantive law and also legal advice in terms of how the person could proceed. Should I mediate or litigate? All of that is discussed in the initial session,” says Shuber.

She typically provides a new client with a package to take home with them that provides some general information on family law.

“It depends on what they’re coming for,” Shuber says. “If it is for a marriage contract, for example, or if they’re looking for information on separation, divorce, or custody, I will give them information on that. I try to send them home with some information but reassure them it’s not their job to know the law or how it works, but at least they can inform themselves. They don’t have to worry about taking notes.”

Often, for the next meeting, Shuber will instruct the client to bring certain documents or information pertinent to their matter.

There is also a discussion about fees, such as explaining what a retainer is, the hourly rate, and who will work on their file.

“I try to set expectations with them about communication, and ask what expectations they have of me in terms of how often they would hear from me or what kind of response time is possible so that everybody knows the parameters of the relationship,” says Shuber.

That includes discussing what constitutes an emergency and who can be reached if Shuber is not available.

“If I say to clients that I will always get back to you within 24 hours, then they are entitled to expect that I do that. If I say to them, my law clerk always knows where I am, and if you can’t reach me reach out to her if it’s an emergency, she can get me,” she says.

Shuber also recommends that clients bring any material they think might be helpful in providing early information on the matter, such as a tax return or statement of income for matters like marital separation.

“The meeting is free-flowing in terms of what the client needs at that particular time and what they’re looking for,” she says.

By the end of the first meeting, it may be determined that the lawyer may not be a good fit for the client’s matter.

“It may be that my calendar is full, and the file may be too labour intensive, and I won’t have the proper time to devote to it. Sometimes people come to see me, and their matter is more straight forward, and they may benefit from working with the junior at my firm who has a lesser hourly rate, and I can supervise. Cost is a factor that we need to be aware of and sensitive to, of course, so we take that into consideration,” Shuber says.

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