Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Saving Money on Attorney's Fees in Family Law and Divorce Cases


            Many people these days are in desperate need of legal representation but claim that they cannot afford legal fees. My response to these people is usually, “You cannot afford NOT to hire a lawyer.” The reason I say this is that many people try to handle legal matters (particularly divorce, custody and child support matters) on their own by representing themselves “Pro Se.” Most of the time the result is that the person looking to “save attorney’s fees” makes a huge mistake (or makes a small mistake that is not noticed for a very long time) and ends up having to hire an attorney to correct the mistake. Often times, the mistake cannot be corrected retroactively and a lot of money is wasted. This result means that I will have plenty of business in the years to come but the person looking to save money ends up spending a great deal more in the long.

         Although hiring an attorney may be expensive, there are many ways that a client can limit the amount of attorney’s fees that are necessary to resolve their case. As most family law attorney’s charge hourly rates, any way the client can help to limit the time their attorney must spend working on their file will ultimately lead to a reduction in fees owed. Below is a list of six (6) things that a client can do to limit their attorney’s fees.

1.    Pick the right attorney from the start.  Changing attorneys once your case has started will certainly cost you more money as you will end up paying for two attorneys to familiarize themselves with your case. In addition, the process of firing and hiring a new lawyer will cost time and money. Ask friends, relatives, co-worker’s or other trusted individuals for referrals. Make sure you are clear about what the attorney you choose intends to do, what they intend to charge and how the fees will be charged.

2.    Consider alternative dispute resolution (ADR). Sometimes disputes can be resolved through mediation or some other form of ADR. These methods are often effective and often ordered anyway by a court after significant amounts of money have already been paid to attorneys. Chances are if you cannot come to a compromise quickly, you will be ordered to mediation anyway.

3.    Ask for alternative payment arrangements. If you do not feel you can afford the attorney’s fees. Ask for an alternative payment arrangement. Some lawyers can offer flat fees, contingency fees (not in family law cases – most times), payment plans and discounted rates. You cannot get what you do not ask for but be realistic. If you propose a payment arrangement, get it in writing and be sure you can stick to it. Do not ever hire a lawyer without a clear understanding of your fee arrangement.

4.    Minimize the attention you need. Be prepared when you plan to meet with or call your attorney. Make lists of questions and bullet points of items that need to be discussed or addressed. One phone call to ask five questions will cost you much less than five phone calls to ask a single question.

5.    Be organized. Being as organized as possible will save you money without a doubt. Attorney’s often spend countless hours reviewing documents and evidence and if it is presented to them in a clean, logical organized fashion it takes much less time. Group documents together and make sure all requests are complete. Put documents in chronological order unless instructed otherwise. If you hand your lawyer a box of crumpled disorganized documents you will be paying them steep fees to do work anyone can do. You do not want to be paying your lawyer to do things that you can do yourself.

6.    Be realistic. You cannot expect to achieve unrealistic results. Get a fair assessment of your case from your lawyer in the beginning and understand that things can change as the case progresses. It is nearly certain that both parties will have to compromise a little (or a lot) to resolve the case and it is uncommon for anyone to be 100% happy with the final result. It is a fact that two people cannot live the same standard of living apart, as they did when they were together. Something has to give. Be realistic.

By reviewing this list and following these tips, it is nearly certain that you can cut down on the time it takes to resolve your case which will lead to less fees for which you will be responsible. Lastly, show your attorney your appreciation by paying your bills timely as agreed. I often discount bills for clients that follow these tips and pay immediately upon receipt of a bill. If I do not have spend unnecessary time on their case and I do not have to chase them down for payment, I can concentrate on what matters… the case and the outcome.