Lawyers charge hundreds of dollars an hour to represent their clients in a divorce action. However, the total legal fees incurred in your case are only partially controlled by you or your attorney. Your spouse and his or her attorney have a lot to do with what the ultimate legal fees will be. From a divorce attorney’s perspective, I’d like to share some tips that I have for reducing your legal fees.
1) Read Your Retainer Agreement with Your Attorney
In New York, every attorney is required to enter into a written retainer agreement with their client before beginning their representation in a family law matter, including divorce. In many respects, the retainer agreement and what it says is controlled by statute. That is not to say, however, that you shouldn’t read and understand it.
To paraphrase Abraham Lincoln, “A lawyer’s time is his stock and trade.” This means that lawyers will charge you based on the time that they spend on your case. Some of that time will be in your presence — like on the phone, in court, or meeting with you. Other times, the attorney will be working alone, either on the phone talking to your spouse’s attorney, perhaps in court without you being present, possibly speaking with experts or doing legal research, or drafting. Regardless, your attorney will charge you for whatever time is spent on your case. The key here is to minimize that time, so as to minimize your legal fees.
Read your retainer agreement; you should have an understanding not only of the hourly rate you are being charged, but in what increments (usually in six minute increments, i.e. in tenths of an hour). Be aware of whether your attorney charges for travel time. Also note expenses for postage, photocopying, secretarial, paralegal, etc. Opportunities may arise in the course of your case where a choice has to be made: you do your own work or your attorney and his staff does. It’s up to you, but if you are concerned about costs, you may have an opportunity to keep fees down by doing as much of the work on your case as possible.
2) Use Email Whenever Possible
Email is one of the most efficient methods of communication that you can use with your attorney. You can send it when it’s convenient for you, and your attorney can review it when it’s convenient for him or her. It also creates a permanent record of your communication. Save the emails that you send and receive from your attorney. Try to keep your emails to the point. If you have a scanner, it’s also an effective way to forward relevant documents to your attorney. I view faxing as yesterday’s technology, and discourage my clients and adversaries from using it unless other methods of communication are not available. Emails are easier to store and to refer to. Never copy third parties on emails sent to your attorney unless your attorney instructs you to do so (you don’t want to lose your attorney-client privilege).
3) Respond Promptly to All Inquiries from Your Attorney
You may not believe it, but yours is not the only case your attorney is handling. Most attorneys don’t have photographic memories, and while your case is obviously the most important divorce matter in your life, it is among many that your attorney is probably handling. By responding promptly to your attorney’s inquiry, you will keep the facts fresh in your attorney’s mind, and the flow of the case going forward. Otherwise, if there is a delay, your attorney may need to take time reviewing your file, for which he or she will charge you.
3) Look for Therapy Somewhere Else
Attorneys are people too. If you call in a bad mood, unhappy, angry, or looking for a friend, you can’t blame your attorney for being empathetic and having that conversation. You also can’t blame your attorney for charging you for his or her time. If you truly are concerned about keeping your legal fees down, use your attorney for legal advice and legal counseling only. Use your therapist, friend, hairdresser, or bowling buddies for everything else. This is not to discourage you from speaking to your attorney about your case. However, just remember that your attorney is a professional charging money for his or her time. You must use that time as efficiently and wisely as possible.
4) Keep Track of the Time You are Spending on the Phone or In Court with Your Attorney
This is simply a quality control item. Most attorneys charge by the tenth of the hour, that is to say, in six minute increments. If they pick up the phone and call you, you can expect to be charged at least a tenth of an hour. If, prior to picking up the phone, they must review your file, that cost may increase. However, if you’re calling your attorney simply to set up an appointment, and the conversation is brief, you should not be charged for more than a tenth of an hour. It’s just a good idea to keep track. If you find that your attorney is charging you in greater increments than you believe is accurate, discuss it with him or her.
5) Review Your Bills Promptly After You Receive Them
In New York, attorneys are obligated to send out bills not less often than every sixty days. Most attorneys bill on a monthly basis. Look at your bill when you receive it, even if you know you can’t pay it right away. It gives you the best record of what your attorney is doing for you, and on your case. If you have any questions, send an email or call about the bill, and be specific. Attorneys cannot charge you for their time discussing or reviewing billing matters. Therefore, it’s a good idea to make these kinds of emails and communications distinct. If you call to discuss your bill, and then begin to talk about your case, it may be difficult to segregate the two items. Therefore, it’s best to do them separately.
6) Do Your Homework
If an attorney asks you for information, provide it to him or her. Don’t delay and don’t expect the attorney to do the work for you, unless you’re prepared to pay for your attorney’s time. I run into this all the time with clients and their net worth statements. Use your own resources to get the information required.
7) If You Don’t Hear from Your Attorney for a Period of Time, Check In
This can be just a two-line email asking what’s going on. You don’t want your case to be delayed, and you want to stay in regular contact with your attorney. If your attorney is involved in a trial or is on vacation, you should know about it. Keep the communication short and to the point, and resist the temptation to fill the attorney in on what’s going on in your life, unless it pertains to the case.
Feel Free to Communicate with Your Spouse if Possible
Some attorneys prefer that their clients not communicate directly with their spouse once a divorce has started. It will depend on your circumstances, but if you are able to work out small logistical matters with your spouse and avoid involving the attorneys, that’s generally a good thing. After all, after the divorce is over, you’ll still have an ex-spouse, and hopefully you will no longer require an attorney to intervene every time you need to communicate. However, if you do have discussions with your spouse, keep your attorney appraised. Be very careful about having settlement negotiations with your spouse without coordinating it with your attorney. You don’t want to be operating on parallel but different tracks.
9) Make Your Own Photocopies
If your attorney asks for any documentation and you know he will be sending copies to an adversary or expert, ask him how many copies he needs and make the copies yourself. This saves your attorney the time of making copies, and saves you the cost of photocopying. Most attorneys also appreciate this. It makes their lives easier.
10) Pick Your Battles
Don’t fight over personal property. At the end of the day, who gets the silverware or the vase should not be a huge deal. Don’t nickel and dime — even if your spouse is. Try to remind yourself you want to come out of the case quickly with the least cost and in the best emotional and financial condition as possible.
11) Consider Using a Financial Planner
Unless you are pretty sophisticated when it comes to finances and budgeting, it’s often a good idea to work with a financial planner as you go through your divorce. Lawyers are often focused on trying to get the most amount of money for their clients, without dealing with the “big picture”. A good financial planner, or better still, a good divorce financial planner, can help you and your attorney with many of the financial aspects of your case (including taxes) and will give you a good overall picture of your post-divorce economic life, and usually at a lower cost than asking your attorney to help you with financial planning.
12) Consider Alternatives to Litigation
Discuss with your attorney all of your available options. These include mediation and working with a mental health professional on childrens issues. Litigation is the most expensive and usually the slowest approach, though often necessary.
13) Do a Cost-Benefit Analysis as Issues Come Up
Every divorce has its share of critical issues that will be encountered which will have to be negotiated or resolved by a court. Work with your attorney in an objective manner and take them one at a time and ask, “Is it worth it to fight on this issue?” For example, if it’s going to cost $3,500 for your attorney to draft a motion, is it worth it?
If you have to go to trial, what is the potential upside versus the cost, not only in legal fees, but in the disruption in your life, missed work or family time, etc.? Most attorneys will spend a day or two preparing for every day they expect to be “on trial”. Do that math, that really adds up! Sometimes it is unavoidable, but if you can reach a compromise that doesn’t give you everything you want but gives you a result you can live with, go ahead and make the deal. Get the certainty of the result and move on.
14) Pay Your Bills in a Timely Manner
Attorneys are people too. Clients who pay their bills promptly will always receive the best service and the most “consideration” when it comes to billing.
Everyone complains about the high cost of divorce. I hope using these tips will help you understand the process and allow you to minimize the cost. Legal fees in a divorce can mount quickly so try to do everything you can to keep these costs under control.
Donald R. Wall, Attorney at Law
10 Park Avenue – Suite #2A
New York, New York 10016
Copyright 2012 Donald R. Wall, Esq. Copying is prohibited; thank you for only quoting with a link back.