After a long recess, court is once again in session - in order to present Part 2 of a secret shopper review of Des Moines area divorce attorneys.
Part 1's proceedings covered six attorneys. Today's docket features six more.
I evaluated the "Divorce Dozen" in part by using the Pillars of Great Customer Service that I teach, as a customer service trainer. I've never been married, but I posed as someone who is (and don't wanna be no mo). My wife "Jane" and I have been hitched for ten years. We have no children together (She has three with another dude) but do own a house, jointly, and outright. She doesn't work. I make $200.000 a year, and have also amassed a retirement fund worth over half a million dollars.
Yesterday's group of attorneys did a great job of explaining the divorce process, and of offering ways for me to minimize my alimony liability that didn't involve moving to Canada, and becoming "Ralph."
Before you, the jury, deliberate the facts...
... I would like to submit into evidence a second group of attorneys, below.
Hockett-Clark Law Office
5550 Wild rose Lane, West Des Moines
Phone answered: "Good afternoon (unintelligible)." (The receptionist might want to slow down her delivery a bit.)
It took a while for me to find Debra's unmarked office among the 80 unmarked offices on the Regus Building's fourth floor. (It was MLK Day and the receptionist had the day off.) Finally I knocked on the (W)right door. Debra didn't greet me by name but flashed a big smile as she shook my hand.
It was clear that Debra was very busy. "I have a mediation and all kinds of things scheduled today," she said. It felt like she was trying to hurry me up a bit, although she may have simply been lamenting not having her support staff around to help out.
Debra methodically laid out the divorce process right out of the gate, asking me few questions at the beginning. She mentioned the 90 day requirement after a divorce petition is served, before it can be finalized. "There are a few reasons we can file a waiver on the 90 day requirement, "she explained, the first and only attorney to reference the waiver. She also explained that "trial dates involving no children may be scheduled further out (over eight months) than those with children," since the courts want to give precedence to cases involving kids. That made sense.
Later in the conversation, instead of asking me a question, Debra would present it as a statement. "I don't know if you guys have significant assets and debts..." "I don't know how much you two are communicating..." "I don't know your income, but..." She finally asked me a few questions - if I owned my own company, if my wife worked. Then Debra said, "If you move out of the house, the obvious problem is that she's living in the house, and you aren't." I thought this would be a hot button isue with all the attorneys, but Debra was the first one to reference it in that way. She cautioned me about trying to maintain two households. "You should consider if you want to leap off this cliff." Great job!
Debra was thorough in her description of the process. She probably could have asked me a few more questions early on, to bring me into the conversation, and process, sooner.
When I finally told her I wasn't really a husband looking for his freedom but a single dude who laughed at those who were, she was kind of shocked. That's understandable. She probably hasn't been secret shopped in a long time. Like, ever.
Overall: Debra is thorough, knowledgeable and competent.
Marberry Law Firm
5835 Grand Avenue, Des Moines
Phone answered: "Marberry Law Firm." (Business-like - probably could be warmer, with a nice "Thank you for calling" at the beginning.)
I told the receptionist I was calling to find an attorney because I was divorcing my wife. She replied, "This is in regards to a dissolution?"
No, a divorce.
When I arrived, there was no receptionist at the front. I could hear a woman talking on the phone about a case. I looked at the receptionist's desk; it was covered with legal papers and sealed, addressed envelopes. None of it felt terribly secure.
I heard the woman hang up the phone. I stood there a bit longer, to see if she'd pop her head out. She didn't. I said, "Helloooooo?"
That's when Kate Stillman appeared.
She offered me a cup of coffee, used my name and was friendly, but didn't smile as we sat down at her desk.
"This is for a dissolution?" she immediately asked.
If "dissolution" means "divorce," then "yes."
Kate then asked, "What's sort of going on?" It was a strong question; it made me feel like she wanted to hear my story.
I told her the details. She said, "According to Iowa law, you don't have to leave the home. That's to preserve the cost." It was a good point to make. Some men may think they have to physically hit the road. (Some women may like the fact that they think this.)
Kate gave the Reader's Digest version of the divorce process, including the 90 day waiting period, or what she called the "cooling off period."
She then asked, "Any issues in your marriage?"
Other than the fact that we want a divorce?
Kate made up for what I thought was kind of a dorky question, with a few strong ones: 'Are you willing to pay alimony?" "What would you like to see done with the house?" She also tried to allay my fears. "It doesn't sound like you're going to have a ton of issues."
Kate did not ask how much money I made, how much I might have in retirement or how much the house was worth, all of which may have added some tonnage.
She did a nice job of breaking down some of the costs: $185 to file, $150 an hour for mediation, which she said usually lasts about three hours, and the cost is split between the two parties.
"The retainer is $1,500, unless alimony blows up as an issue," Kate said. She was being honest, but I didn't like to hear "$1,500," "alimony" and "blow up" in the same sentence.
It was time to blow (up) my cover.
Kate sort of smiled as I told her what I was up to. Let's call it a forced grin.
Overall: Kate is a very busy, competent attorney who asked some very smart questions that no one else asked.
Stamatelos And Associates
2700 Westown Parkway, West Des Moines
Phone answered: (It was voice-mail.) The message said to leave a message, and to go to their website, and fill out an intake form - a very cool little detail!
As cool as Kimberly Stamatelos' voice message was, she was ten times that and a bag of chips in person.
She greeted me warmly and with a smile, by name and with a handshake as I entered her office.
We sat down in the conference room.
"I like to just hear about what happened," Kimberly began. Empathetic, compassionate, not worrying about the process at this point - it was a fantastic way to start.
I laid it all out for her, including the fact that I made enough to buy a proton accelerator, while my wife earned less than the cost of a box of Kleenex.
"I'm glad you're doing this now instead of five years from now," she said with a huge smile, "or else you'd be taking care of her through the old people's home."
Kimberly was very open about the crapshoot of determining alimony. "The problem with alimony is that there's no rule. I call it 'free-fall.'"
We talked about the odds of the outcome being decided by a judge. "We try to keep you out of trial, because it turns your money over to strangers (judges)," she explained. "Judges also want mediation. They have zero tolerance about, 'he didn't take out the garbage,' 'she didn't take care of the dog.'" She emphasized the different personalities of the judges, that some were more desireable than others, depending on what a client wanted. "Judges are people, too," she said. "They have different experiences, different backgrounds. All of that comes in to play." Unfortunately the judge we'd end up with was out of our control. "We don't know who our judge is until the night before trial."
Kimberly left and came back with a book that had the actual Iowa Statute that outlines the factors that go into determining alimony. "Length of marriage. Age and physical health of parties. Distribution of property made. Educational level of parties. Earning capacity of parties." And a lot more.
We talked about how much this was going to cost me.
"Your legal fees will depend on who she gets as an attorney," she said. Honest, reasonable - it was a great way to say it.
I was having way too much fun talking with the very engaging Kimberly to tell her I was not some unlucky married dolt who was going to get taken to the cleaners but was instead a single secret shopper, but still a dolt.
I came clean. She smiled big and laughed loud, just like I figured she would. She also wondered how she did, and was the only attorney to ask. "Give me some feedback! Tell me what I can do better!" Awesome job, Kimberly!
Overall: Kimberly is dynamic, engaging, witty, compassionate and down to earth, someone you'd love to have as your attorney, or your friend.
Berg, Rouse, Spaulding and Schmidt
2423 Ingersoll, Des Moines
Phone answered: "Good afternoon. Berg, Rouse, Spaulding and Schmidt."
The receptionist who greeted me at the desk was pleasant, busy and efficient. She got up out of her chair and stood up to address me, as I approached - awesome. She did something else that was equally subtle and no less powerful; after she'd told an attorney that "Your 1:45 is here," she put the phone back down, and, smiling, told me he'd be right out. I said thank you, and lingered by the counter, looking through the business cards. Instead of turning away and going about her business, the receptionist continued to face me, standing, until I turned away, at which point she went back to doing her thing. It was a professional and thoughtful gesture. Amazing job!
Rick Schmidt was also rock and roll.
He flashed a big smile as he invited me back into his office, shook my hand (a little weakly) and called me by name with a very deep, resonant voice. He was casually dressed in black jeans and a beautiful purple shirt, and the laid-back look fit his chilled out vibe.
Rick touched on the divorce process, outlined the three types of alimony and used analogies instead of legalese, when necessary.
He talked about the ways she could be served the petition. "You could also take her the papers," he said. Rick was the first and only attorney to offer this as one of my options. Awesome!
As the income disparity between my wife and me became apparent, Rick opened his eyes wide and blew through his lips "Whew!" It was exactly how you'd expect a dude to react. Yet he had no intention of having me roll over. "Spousal support and alimony is a crap shoot," he said, "but we'll argue that she's got a bigger capacity to work than she claims."
Rick did not use my name throughout the conversation - which I pointed out to him when I finally stopped claiming I was who I wasn't, and told him who I was.
Rick smiled, said he'd never been secret shopped and thanked me for the feedback I gave him, especially about his receptionist. "We think she's fantastic," he beamed.
You can hear more from Rick Schmidt, including the biggest mistakes people make when they get a divorce, during my conversation with him, on The Unsecret Shopper Radio Show, Saturday morning 8-9am on 1350 KRNT.
Overall: Rick is clever and quick-witted, and projects a strong, "man's man" persona, yet is equally compassionate and understanding.
Sullivan and Ward
6601 Westown Parkway, West Des Moines
Phone answered: "Sullivan and Ward." (Pleasant, but could use a nice "Thank you for calling..." at the front end.)
The receptionist connected me to Samantha Gronewald, who was very upbeat and happy on the phone.
"In this initial consultation, I'll explain the process," she said. She didn't use my name during our conversation, but ended it with "Have a great weekend!" Nice job!
I visited her office a few days later. The receptionists who greeted me were pleasant, smiling and cordial. They offered me coffee as they sat me down in the huge conference room, to wait for Samantha.
She joined me a few minutes later.
"Are the kids living at home?" she asked, after I'd explained the situation. She was the first and only attorney to ask that question. She also asked, "Would you want to maintain a relationship with the kids?" Again, she was the only attorney to ask it.
Samantha described the different ways my wife could be served, and recommended against the third one, a process server. "That gets cases off on the wrong foot," she cautioned.
She pulled out an Affidavit of Financial Status and went over it, in detail. Beside it, she put a blank piece of paper, and drew a simple graph, marking one column, "assets," and the other, "debits." It was a wonderful way to explain the formal document, which she then gave me.
Samantha asked, "How long were you together before you were married?" I immediately understood why she asked it; she was the first and only attorney to do so.
Then she said, with a quiet determination, "I would encourage you to take the position that there will be no spousal support." This was someone who was obviously going to fight for me.
She assured me that most cases "usually get settled at mediation," and that "if they're not, you usually know it right away." She gave me a "best case scenario" time line (90 days) 2nd worst case (160 days) and worst case (6-9 months).
Samantha explained the process of a pre-trial conference, talked about what to expect at trial and, towards the end, said the sweetest, most reassuring thing, with a beautiful smile:
"If I never hear from you again, I assume that everything worked out fine." Wowowowowowowowow.
She broke down her fees: $175 an hour if she's working on it, $85 if it's something the paralegal can do. "My retainer is $2,500 for divorces without children."
I wanted to get married so I could get a divorce so I could hire Samantha. I punched the feeling in the face until it shut up.
It was time to shut up the charade, and come clean. Samantha, my name is Jonathan Reed Atticus Wright, and I am the award-winning author 'The Unsecret Shopper,' the most well-read, incredibly important and influential blog in the whole entire world. I'm sure you've heard of me - I'm stunned you didn't recognize me. I'm here today because-
"I've never heard of The Unsecret Shopper."
She was a great sport about the whole thing.
Overall: Samantha is uber-thorough, extremely poised, detail-oriented and driven - a total professional.
100 Court Avenue, Des Moines
Phone answered: "Babich." (This was the shortest answer of all the phone calls. I'm glad I heard both syllables.)
After I told him my story, Les Babich asked me a long list of questions: How long had I been married? Children? What county did I live in? What do I do for a living? What does my wife do? How much does your wife make? How much do you make?
"Six figures," I replied/lied.
"It's $390 an hour for a consultation," he said. Can I change my answer?
I told him I was looking for a free consultation because "I've never been divorced before" and needed to find out what I was supposed to do. He started throwing out days and times he was available. We finally agreed on one.
I went to his office on Court Avenue not knowing if he'd charge me. I had 69 cents and a Gummy Bear in my pocket.
It turned out to be free. Because Les wasn't there.
Mindy Guynn, a paralegal, and the receptionist both greeted me at the door. Both were very apologetic. (I got the feeling this wasn't the first time they'd had to do this.) Mindy said that Les was stuck in court and that she'd tried to call me, but couldn't read Les' handwriting.
Note to staff: keep Les away from pens and pencils.
Neither of the two women used my name while we talked, but they both smiled, and were extremely friendly and engaging.
I decided to come clean, and told them I was secret shopping attorneys. They both kind of got that "uh-oh" look; I assured them that they'd been great, and that I'd go easy on Mr. Babich.
Life is what gets in the way of plans.
Overall: Mindy and the receptionist were awesome. Ladies, please work with Les on his phone greeting, and penmanship. :)
I, Judge Unsecret Shopper, find the following defendants GUILTY of the charge of providing great customer service to the ultimate degree...plus these additional charges:
1. Samantha Gronewald - GUILTY of being the most thorough and poised attorney. If it was time to kick my no good husband to the curb, I'd want Samantha doin the kickin.
2. Kimberly Stamatelos - GUILTY of being the most engaging and witty attorney. If it goes to trial, I want Kimberly, who will charm the pants/skirt off the judge.
3. Tom Graves - GUILTY of being the most old-school, down to earth attorney. If it's a criminal case, I want Tom, who is Des Moines' version of Melvin Belli.
Also facing additional charges of being off the customer service hizzle, fo shizzle:
Rick Schmidt and Ryan Weese
Thanks to all the attorneys for being such great sports. This customer service court is adjourned. Bailiff, bring in the next secret shopper defendant...
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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