Anyone experiencing the turmoil of litigation and divorce, knows that the financial toll of attorney’s fees can be a significant concern. Knowing what you can do to keep costs under control can make the experience a little less unpleasant. Where do you start? The following discusses some of the considerations you will face and how you may want to navigate those choices.
Choice of an Attorney: When choosing an attorney, find out how that attorney bills their Clients. Is there a retainer and hourly rate or a flat fee? Does the attorney have a menu of costs for each task—such as, if you send an e-mail you will be charged $_____? Does the attorney work on a retainer—which is an account you will fund and from which they will draw their fees and costs? Are you required to replenish the retainer every month?
An attorney that works on a retainer with an hourly rate (such as $250/hr.) that is broken into 5-minute increments—rather than 15-minute increments as many attorneys charge—may result in significant savings for a Client. If the Client calls to talk for 4 minutes, a 5-minute deduction ($20.83) would be taken from the retainer rather than a 15-minute deduction ($62.50). So, it is important to ask the attorney about the way in which the hourly rate is billed.
Who Performs the Legal Work and Who Performs the Administrative Work: When choosing an attorney, it is also important to ask about who will be providing the actual day-to-day service and interaction. Many Clients will query whether their case can be handled 100% by the attorney with whom they are consulting; or, if others in the office will be handling the case. This question is usually asked because the Client believes it to be best when “the attorney” does everything on the case. However, if the attorney does everything, the Client will be paying the attorney to do everything. Many procedural and administrative tasks that keep a case progressing through the Court or provide updates to Clients, do not require the attorney’s legal opinions. Often, such tasks are routine, part of the service the attorney offers to keep the Client updated and to adhere to Court Orders, rules and procedures. Generally, support staff are billed at much less than the attorney’s rate. So, if support staff are performing procedural tasks such as filing documents and setting Court appearances and docketing deadlines, the Client is billed much less than if the attorney performed these functions. The attorney bills at $250/hr., the paralegal at $125/hr. You do the math.
The Initial Retainer: If your attorney works on a retainer, it is also important to look at the retainer amount charged by the attorney. An attorney that charges a $15,000 retainer is likely too expensive for many people going through a divorce. A $5000 retainer may be more realistic—but is it likely the entire case will be concluded for $5000 or is there a likelihood that additional funds will need to be added to the retainer as the case progresses? Some attorneys require the Client to replenish the retainer every month. This means you must have funds available every month to pay to the attorney. Some simply withdraw from the retainer and when it reaches a low level ($500 or so) the Client must choose to replenish or have the attorney withdraw from representation.
The reality of choosing a divorce lawyer often comes down to a gut feeling—the attorney was accessible, answered questions in a comprehensive and understandable way, appeared to recognize significant issues and was relatively affordable. Therefore, the attorney appears to be the right choice for the Client. In subsequent posts, we will explore what you can do while working with your attorney to help keep costs under control.