Are you spending too much in attorney fees? Everyone embroiled in a family law dispute wants to know how they can pursue a legal action without spending a lot of money. While finding a family law attorney with a lower hourly rate or who requires a lower retainer may seem like the least expensive way to go, what most people fail to realize is what they can do to reduce their attorney fees. Having a firm grip on your legal bill begins with your very first step – selecting the family law attorney who will represent you. To start out on the right foot, consider the following:
Free Consultation vs. Paid Consultation: Everyone wants something for free and a free consultation, or your very first meeting with a prospective attorney, is no exception. So, why would you pay for a consultation with an attorney when you can find many others who would talk to you for free? Consider the source. Who would be providing the free consultation? Is it the attorney you would really like to represent you, the one who has the reputation as being the best in his or her area of specialty, or is it with a new associate who doesn’t have as much experience? Most attorneys who have earned a reputation as being the go-to person for a certain type of legal action are too busy with current clients to give their time away for free. They charge a premium because if they talked to prospective clients for free, they’d spend all of their time meeting with potential clients rather than practicing law – it’s the simple law of supply and demand.
How Much Expertise Does Your Case Require? Consider your needs and shop accordingly. Divorcing couples with no children or no assets don’t need the same level of legal expertise as couples who are facing nasty custody disputes or who may own a business or several businesses. If you don’t have a lot to fight over or are able to amicably agree on how to divide the marital assets or time with the children, look in to mediation or consider an attorney who can transact a simple, non-contested divorce. If yours is a relatively simple matter, you may want to specifically ask that an associate handle your case. Associates generally charge much less than partners but you will still benefit from the knowledge and advice of the senior attorney on an as-needed basis.
Understand How You Will Be Billed. In entering into an attorney-client relationship, your attorney will present you with an agreement outlining the scope of the services to be provided as well as how you will be charged for services. This is commonly known as the Engagement Letter or Fee Agreement. While it is common for only the senior attorney’s billing rate to be presented in the agreement, ask who else will be working on your case and what billing rates they charge. In addition, don’t assume that your initial advance fee (formerly called a retainer) will cover the cost of your entire action. There are many factors that affect overall cost but after learning the details of your case at the initial meeting, the attorney should be able to give you a ballpark estimate of how much you can reasonably expect to spend in attorney fees and give a range for overall expected costs.
Be Honest With Your Attorney. The attorney-client relationship is privileged, meaning that what you say to your attorney is confidential. If you have made poor decisions in the past, don’t try to hide it from your attorney. Secrets have a way of coming out in a legal dispute and your attorney needs to know what skeletons are in your closet. If you hide something, it will most certainly come to light later and will end up costing you more in attorney fees. Your lawyer needs to know what he or she is dealing with up front.
Get Organized. Keep it as simple as possible for your attorney. For example, if child support is an issue, organizing your receipts and payments in chronological order rather than handing over a shoebox full of receipts for the last 5 years will save you money since the paralegal won’t need to spend time organizing your file. One caveat: before spending a lot of your time, ask if there’s a specific format or manner in which you should organize it.
Save Money on Correspondence. E-mail is a great money-saver. Rather than spending money on postage, a cost which is usually passed through to the client, let your attorney know that e-mail is your preferred method of communication. In addition to correspondence, ask that they transmit forms and other documents to you via e-mail. Not only will you save money on postage, scanning and e-mailing the documents will also save money on copying cost – another cost that is usually passed through to the client.
Do Some of the Leg Work. Are you seeking a modification of custody or child support? Then make sure you provide your attorney with a copy of your previous Judgment on your very first visit. If you don’t, you will end up paying the time required for a paralegal to retrieve it from the court. The same is true for addresses, dates of birth, and social security numbers – ensure that the information you have is accurate and complete. If you don’t want to spend the time to locate the information or are unable to, you will pay for the time required for an employee of the firm to locate that person or information for you.
Pay Your Bill On Time. Most fee agreements provide for interest or late payments if you don’t pay your balance in full each month. Don’t get caught in a debt spiral, be sure to communicate with your attorney to prevent interest charges from accruing on your account. If you’re not able to pay your balance in full, contact your attorney or the administrator of the firm to find out if they will waive interest if you set up a payment plan where a set amount is deducted from your bank account or charged to a debit or credit card each month. Most firms will be happy to work with you if you make a good faith effort to pay your bill.
Negotiate Your Final Payment. This is one thing I rarely see a client do. If your matter is finished and you’re left with a staggering legal bill, ask if your attorney will accept a smaller lump sum as payment in full. A discount on the final bill is a way for you to significantly reduce the total amount you pay and benefits the attorney since they won’t have to pay the administrative costs associated with collecting the bill over time.
Do you have other questions about divorce and money that you’d like answered? I’d love to hear from you! Send me an e-mail and I’ll answer your question in a future blog post. Submissions should be in the form of a general question and should not contain specific information regarding people or events. The publication of a blog post addressing your question does not create an attorney-client relationship and should not be construed as legal or tax advice. Please see our legal disclaimer for additional information.By Tina Sabbagh, CPA, MBA on behalf of The Law Offices of Kathleen E. Shaul, PC