According to the American Bar Association, there are 1,239,526 lawyers in the United States.
Here is one of 1,239,526 lawyer jokes:
A 50 year-old lawyer who had been practicing since he was 25 years old died and arrived at the pearly gates of Heaven.
The lawyer said to St. Peter, “I am so surprised I died so young. I was so active, and always ate well. And I’m only 50 years old!”
St. Peter looked at his book and looked back down at the lawyer.
“50 years old, you say? According to your billing records, you should be 83.”
Lawyers, or, for the purposes of this review, attorneys (There is a technical difference) can bill a lot of hours because they spent seven years of college in the campus law library while you and I did things that made our parents hire legal counsel.
That stressed our folks out, which led them to get a divorce, which led them to hire attorneys, which led to today’s Secret Shopper review.
Can you handle the truth about attorneys?
Divorce rates - as well as the number of marriages – fell in the U.S., in 2009. Apparently people thought it would be cheaper just to love and honor, or hate and yell at each other, without making it official. About a third of all Americans over the age of 15 aren’t married, according to the U.S. Census.
For the locals who are but don’t want to be, here are a dozen Des Moines area law firms and solo practices that specialize in divorce. I selected them at random, from Google searches, phone book searches and recommendations from (divorced) friends.
The pretend scenario: I’ve been married for 10 years. I have recently moved out of the house because of marital problems. I’m seeking a divorce, and need to hire counsel.
Other made-up details: My wife Jane and I have no children together, but she does have three from a previous relationship. We own our home (valued at $250,000) free and clear (lol). I am the sole breadwinner in the house, and make $200,000 a year (ROTFLMAO). I have stashed away $600,000 in a retirement fund (Stop it! My stomach!). And if I don’t hire a good attorney, I’ll be living in a van down by the river (beside former Governor Culver).
At the end of every conversation, I told the attorney who I really was, and what I was really doing. A review is a review, but a lawsuit is…you get the idea.
Today’s Part 1 review will describe my experiences with six attorneys (in no particular order). Friday’s Part 2 will cover the other six.
I went in looking for Pillars of Great Customer Service: Did the attorney smile, greet me by name and use a firm (but not crushing) handshake? Did the attorney use my name as we talked, to break down the walls that exist between people who have never met? Did the attorney maintain good eye contact? Did the attorney ask me questions as they described the divorce process, to bring me into the conversation? Was the attorney cordial, engaging and empathetic? Did the attorney thank me at the end, shake my hand and use my name again? Besides the Pillars, did the attorney do a good job explaining how divorce works? Would I retain this person as counsel?
What will be the Unsecret Shopper's verdict?
Most of the attorneys offered a free initial consultation. Those who didn’t are noted, because I didn’t talk to them, because I’m cheap.
None of the attorneys were. They charge up to $250 an hour, with retainers ranging from $600 to $3,500. There’s a reason why attorneys rank in the top 15 of highest paying careers.
They earn it. After spending hours listening to these 12 highly trained professionals describe the often long, drawn-out and painful experience of going through a marriage dissolution, may I say, emphatically, to my friends and family members who gave me grief over the years for never walking down the aisle…
Now, all rise – in the case of The Unsecret Shopper vs. Des Moines Divorce Attorneys, the (basically) Honorable Judge Wright presiding…
Scott Fisher Law Firm
1200 Valley West Drive, West Des Moines
Phone answered: “Fisher Law Firm.” (A “Thank you for calling…” at the beginning would have been great. The voice on the other end was very pleasant.)
The person who answered the phone did some pre-qualifying, and was the only one who did so. “Do you have kids?” “Have you been served?” This was also the only person who said, “We could set up a free consultation,” pointing out that I wasn’t going to be charged. I thought that was very strong.
What isn’t so strong is my memory, and my notes – neither of which indicate if the person who answered the phone was a woman (who would have likely not been Scott Fisher), or a man (who would have had a much better chance of being, indeed, Scott).
My bad, Scott, either way.
I do know that Scott greeted me, pleasantly, at the door of his office. He’s got a great handshake. He also said my name, and smiled. Awesome start!
We sat down at his desk.
Scott and I talked a bit about my situation. He said, “I take a retainer of $600 to $1,000 for a divorce.” That’s the lowest number quoted, by any of the attorneys I met with.
Scott then asked me some basic questions: was I living with my wife? (No) Did we own our home? (Yes) Is it in both our names? (Yes)
“What’s your address?” he asked, reasonably enough.
I’m a chronic renter. I gave him the address of a house in Des Moines my mother had purchased in 1979.
He turned towards the computer screen on his desk. “Let’s look it up.”
Look it up?
“Let’s make sure that both your names are on the house.”
I watched in horror as he went to a website and punched in the address. A PDF image of the title or deed or whatever you nutty homeowners sign, slowly unfurled itself on the screen. At the top of the document, beside “OWNER:” was a name. I was hoping it was mine, and maybe I’d just forgotten that I’d been making monthly payments on it (a nice little house on 42nd street) for 31 years.
Scott frowned. “Uh…it says that the owner’s name is Bob Giuseppi.”
How ya gonna get out of this one, wabbit?
“Yeah…that’s…uh…my maiden name, before I got married.”
Actually I said, “Ya got me. I’m busted.”
I explained who I was, what I was doing there and why I’m an idiot. Scott wasn’t sure how to take the first two things, but kinda laughed at the last part.
I told him to bring up my website (since he was already on the ‘net). Sure enough, there was my mug, unmasked.
“That must be fun,” he said.
Most of the time.
Overall: Scott is pleasant, thorough and knowledgeable – and is ready to represent Mr. Giuseppi, should he need legal counsel.
Hudson, Mallaney, Shindler and Anderson
5015 Grand Ridge Drive, West Des Moines
Phone answered: “Good afternoon. Hudson Law Firm.” (Pleasant)
The receptionist connected me to Ryan Weese, who used my name twice during the brief conversation. Nice job! We set up an appointment. “I’ll pick your brain tomorrow,” he said, not knowing the pickens would be slim.
The next day, I was greeted by an unsmiling receptionist. Four unsmiling attorneys walked past me, glanced at me and then looked away while I waited in the lobby. This was going to be fun…
Tracey’s warm smile and greeting broke the somber mood. “Hi, Jon! I’m Tracey!” She offered me a beverage while she took me to the conference room, apologizing along the way for some construction disarray. “We had some recent water damage from a sprinkler system that went off accidentally. Excuse the mess.”
Ryan entered a few minutes later. He wore a slight smile, and a beautiful blue tie. He extended a warm handshake, invited me to sit down, and immediately apologized for the flood damage. “Sorry for the mess. We’re lucky to be in business,” he said, flashing a smile.
With the disparity between my income and my soon-to-be-ex-wife’s, it was clear I wasn’t going to be quite so lucky.
“You’ve got an alimony risk,” the Drake graduate said, in a beautifully understated lawyerly way, after I told him I made six figures, and my wife earned a couple bucks occasionally babysitting for the neighbors. He mentioned my wife’s name, and mine as we talked. Great memory!
This was one of the first attorneys I secret shopped, so I didn’t quite have all the details ironed out in my head. This led to a weird moment.
“When were you married?” Ryan asked.
“1989,” I pulled out of my hat.
“How old are your wife’s children?”
“They’re 14 and 12,” I replied, thinking of my two favorite Powerball numbers.
He paused. “Uh…you said the children are from your wife’s previous marriage…”
“Yes.” If Ryan was the 5:15 DART, I was getting to the bus stop around five til six.
“Did something happen?” he offered, trying to help out an old man.
Finally an incandescent light flickered inside my skull.
“Oh…I’d really rather not talk about it right now.” Great save, Edison!
Ryan did a nice job of explaining the nuts and bolts of the process, from filing the petition for divorce, to mediation, to a possible trial, which he said was unlikely, and wouldn’t happen soon, even if things did get that far. “If we filed today, it would take 8 to 10 months to get in front of a judge.” Yikes. Ryan addressed my apprehensions. “We probably handle more divorce cases than anybody else in Iowa.” He didn’t mention how much this divorce might cost me – the only attorney to not offer that information.
Finally I let the cat out of the bag. I’ve never been married, I make 12 grand a year as a minor blogger and you’re on Unsecret Shopper Camera.
Ryan flashed a big smile; he was a great sport about it. “I was wondering about the ages of those kids, and the marriage date,” he laughed, although he said that’s not the strangest thing he’s ever heard. “You’d be surprised.”
Overall: Ryan is a consummate professional – all business, but pleasant and empathetic. And his tie, rocked.
Hope Law Firm
317 6th Avenue, Des Moines
Phone answered: “Thank you for calling Hope Law Firm.” (Very pleasant)
The receptionist asked “Can I help you?” as I approached her desk. Readers of The Unsecret Shopper know how I feel about closed-ended questions, that I think they’re evil, that they kill birds in mid-flight, that they’re responsible for WWII. A nicer, warmer, “Hi! How can I help you?” would have felt nicer and warmer. She did smile, offered me coffee and gave me a form to fill out while I waited in the lobby.
The info sheet was somewhat confusing, although I confuse easily. It asked for “number of marriages,” then, “number of previous marriages.” Those sounded like they were asking for the same number, unless I lived in Utah.
Further down the form, it asked for info about my wife. “Adverse Party Name.” “Adverse” may be a legal term, but the adjective felt unnecessary, and inflammatory, although some divorce-seekers might prefer something stronger.
Cynthia Lange soon appeared. “Hello Jon,” she said, with a nice smile, while shaking my hand.
Cynthia broke the news to me quickly, after I told her what I made, and what my wife didn’t. “You’ll be stuck with some alimony.” She did a nice job of explaining the three main types in Iowa: Temporary (helps spouse maintain lifestyle until actual divorce, and sometimes a bit after it), Permanent (paid throughout spouse’s life) and Rehabilitative (paid to a non-working spouse until they can get back on their feet).
I’m voting for “None.”
“There is no actual set formula for alimony,” Cynthia explained, although she said also said they’re looking into changing that.
I told her I was anxious to move forward. “You may want to give her a carrot, to get this going,” she suggested. I already gave her a carat…
Cynthia was pleasant but very business-like. She obviously knew her stuff, but probably assumed a bit too much that I did, too; she used terms like “onus” and “exigent” and “answer and appearance” and other legalese that didn’t go over my head, but did glance off my forehead, making my eyes glaze over a bit. She also could have asked me a few more questions as she described the process, just to give me more ownership, and pull me into the conversation a bit more
I’d taken enough of this fine attorney’s time. I told her who I was, and why I was there.
Cynthia looked sort of shell-shocked at first, then slowly smiled. “I’ve never been secret shopped before!” she exclaimed. I get that all the time…
Overall: Cynthia is extremely knowledgeable and competent, and gives off a confident persona.
Phil Watson, P.C.
535 East Army Post Road, Des Moines
Phone answered: “Watson Law Firm.” (Pleasant)
I explained my plight to the receptionist, who engaged in a bit of chit-chat, then cut to the chase: “The charge for the initial consultation is $75.”
An attorney’s gotta eat, I get that. Their time is money, rightfully so and totally understood. For this review, however, I decided that I’d only seek free consultations, because any money I spent on my fake divorce would be money I couldn’t spend on my real therapist.
Of the dozen attorneys/law firms I contacted, this was one of two that charged for the first visit. (You’ll read about the second one – who I did end up seeing for free - in Friday’s Part 2 review.)
Graves Law Firm
2024 92nd Court, Clive
Phone answered: “Tom Graves.”
I expected a receptionist to answer the phone; when Tom did, it sort of threw me.
Tom could have literally thrown me; he’s a big man. He works in a nondescript building, tucked back in an industrial area, off the beaten path.
“Come on in!” he yelled from his office, as I stepped into the receptionist’s area, a few days later.
I walked up to Tom, who flashed a quick smile and shook my hand, looking down and away from me. He invited me to sit down, then took his own advice, leaning back in his chair, with one foot pressing against the edge of his desk. “What’s up?”
I laid it out for him. Tom immediately tried to allay my fears. “Nobody goes to trial anymore,” he said, and went on to tell me about the backlog in the courts.
“I charge $200 an hour, and receive a $3,500 retainer.” That was all I needed to know to know I didn’t want to go to trial.
Tom Graves is a big man with a big persona; he’s a combination of attorney Melvin Belli (looks) and Dr. McCoy from Star Trek (demeanor), which is especially ironic since they both once appeared on the same show.
(Belli + Bones = TG)
He’s very cordial, laid back and down to earth, a total straight-shooter. He’s also a hoot – especially when I told him I was a secret shopper.
“Well I’ll be (darned),” he said, laughing.
I asked him what it was like to be a divorce attorney.
“I like family law, but they drive me crazy!” he said. Why? “Clients don’t tell you the truth,” he laughed. “People say they have their finances in order, but they often don’t.”
When I asked him how many divorce cases he’s done, Tom replied, “In the past five years – probably a thousand, maybe more.”
Tom was looking for #1,001.
“I want your divorce! I want your divorce!” he called out to me, jokingly, as I walked out.
Here’s a snowball…
The guy should have his own TV show. We’ll start with The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, which you can hear him on, this Saturday morning, 8-9am on 1350 KRNT.
Overall: Tom is a down to earth, old-school, bigger-than-life attorney who’d be a blast to sit down and have a soda with.
Balduchi Law Firm
2801 Hubbell, Des Moines
Phone answered: “Law office.” (The phone greeting was a bit nondescript. It would benefit from some more information.)
I waited a bit in the lobby before the receptionist realized I was there. No problem. “Can I help you?” she asked. It’s especially important to ask an open-ended “How can I help you?” question when the person knows that the person they’re asking, has been waiting.
Soon I was greeted by Elizabeth Varnon, who shook my hand, used my name and invited me into a conference room.
Elizabeth soon began asking me questions about my situation, instead of simply describing the divorce process. That made her seem more compassionate. When I told her my wife wasn’t employed, and hadn’t been, she asked, “How come she doesn’t work?” in a slightly judgemental tone. Funny – I immediately felt like defending Jane, my pretend wife. A few minutes later, Elizabeth went the other way. “How is she taking it? How is she doing?” She was the only attorney to ask about my wife – awesome job!
Elizabeth maintained great eye contact as she thoroughly explained the divorce process.
“In Polk County, the courts want everything to be mediated,” she explained. “They don’t want to make it worse.” She also presented a secondary reason for mediation. “The judges get tired of hearing the same old crap.”
That seemed like a good time to tell her that my story was also crap-ola.
Elizabeth was sort of quiet at first, as she listened to me explain what I do (lie), where I do it (blog/radio show) and why (nobody really knows). She really began to get into it when I told her about all the good things she’d done, along with offering her a few ideas for making things even better.
Overall: Elizabeth is engaging, detail-driven, has a great sense of humor and knows her stuff.
Friday: Six more attorneys, including Kimberly Stamatelos, Richard Schmidt, Samantha Gronewald, Debra Hockett-Clark and more…
Jonnie Wright is a customer service evaluator and trainer, professional secret shopper, marketing strategist and host of The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday mornings 8-9am, on 1350, KRNT.
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