Lawyers are expensive. The amount of legal fees fees associated with a divorce or a family dispute can be quite a wake-up call. Most lawyers charge by the hour for their legal services, and most of the time, the final sum is more than the initial attorney retainer fee.
9 ways to make the most out of your divorce attorney fees:
1. Put the story of your marriage in writing
This is probably the most important thing you can do. Organize your information and be prepared to give it to your lawyer at the first meeting. Write “the story” of your marriage, giving the marriage date, birth dates of children, and significant events leading to its collapse. Include other family history (prior marriages, stepchildren, extended family if any of that information is relevant).
2. Gather your financial documents
Your financial information is just as important. Give your attorney copies of your financial life: income tax returns, recent bank statements, stock broker accounts, deed to your house and any other real property you own, and life and medical insurance. Be sure to include debts like credit card statements, mortgages, and medical bills.
You may be asked for a budget of your monthly living expenses: cost of mortgage (or rent), utilities, food, auto expenses, clothing, education costs, and personal and recreation expenses. Look at your bills and make a list of these expenses. It will help your lawyer in discussion about spousal and child support.
You may save significant attorney fees by spending the time yourself collecting the papers needed for your case. There are formal legal procedures available to obtain financial information (called “discovery”) from your spouse or third parties, but they are time-consuming and expensive, especially if your spouse is uncooperative.
3. Be ready to absorb a lot of information
There is a huge amount of information that you need to take in once you meet with a lawyer, from choosing a divorce process to the many aspects of New York State law that apply, including grounds for divorce, custody, visitation, support, division of assets and debts, separate property v. marital property, insurance, future estate’s rights, and more. It can easily overwhelm a new client. You may need to review all of this information repeatedly because you can’t absorb it all initially, so take some notes and ask your lawyer to review issues that are still unclear to you.
Many clients make a list of their questions and concerns, which they bring to the meeting with their lawyer. Or, you may make a list of questions after you meet, based upon the discussion. If so, email them to the lawyer, and ask for a response. If the issues are complicated, your lawyer might want to have another conference with you.
4. Use lawyer time wisely
Ask your lawyer about the best of way of contacting him or her for follow-up questions or for further data. Most lawyers welcome email inquiries because they can respond after court hours. And they can give thought to your issues. If you call your lawyer in the middle of the day–the busiest office time–prefacing your call with “I just have a quick question,” chances are you’ll get a quick answer, but not necessarily a full response.
5. Read all the documents
Starting with the retainer letter, which is the basic agreement between you and your lawyer about his/her fees and services. If you have questions or don’t understand something, ASK. You are beginning an expensive relationship and need to understand what you are doing. If your lawyer sends you various documents to review, read them and respond as quickly as you can. Don’t waste your money on needless follow-up calls asking if you received the paperwork. On the other hand, if you are confused by documents or by the course of action your lawyer is taking, consider asking for a meeting to get back on track.
6. Review your billing statements
You will receive billing statements from your lawyer at least every 60 days, per court rules. The statement must contain a description of services rendered and time spent, and the balance of attorney fees due. If you provided a retainer, the services will be billed against the retainer. Read carefully for content (you should understand the services described) and for the arithmetic! Check for mistakes and let your lawyer know right away if you disagree with any portion of the billing statement. Some retainer agreements say that your failure to object within a certain period of time means that you accept the amount of the bill.
7. Focus on your objectives
Even if you follow the suggestions above, your attorney fees may really add up. Remember your objectives—what do you want to achieve? If your legal issues are complex, your spouse is uncooperative or has enough financial resources to delay the case, the court has issued orders that result in more attorney fees, or you need to file an appeal, then you may need extensive legal services to achieve your goals. Don’t blame your lawyer for circumstances beyond his or her control. Be prepared to pay for the services you need.
8. Pay attention to your lawyer’s style
If you begin to feel that your attorney is churning your case, engaging in excessive legal activities, needlessly generating litigation, resisting or even sabotaging settlement possibilities, then you should reassess your relationship. See another attorney for a review consultation, to help you determine if your lawyer is costing you too much. Trust your instincts: If you think you are being overbilled, look for another lawyer.
9. Change lawyers if necessary
You have an absolute right to change lawyers, for cause or otherwise. If you do so, your current lawyer is entitled to be paid for services rendered up to the time you give notice that you are discharging him or her. If you dispute your lawyer’s final bill, you are entitled to engage in an arbitration proceeding to determine an appropriate fee. You must pay for services already provided even though you are no longer satisfied with that lawyer.
Do as much homework as you can to keep your legal fees at a reasonable and affordable level. If circumstances make it impossible to keep your fees low, then explore a loan from a family member or other way to pay so you will continue to be adequately represented. If you start to question your lawyer’s decisions, including the billing of what may be excessive hours/fees, trust your instincts and seek other counsel. This is your right. Do not allow legal fees to add up to unmanageable amounts before addressing the issue with your lawyer. You and your lawyer are a team and the cost can be considerable: Make sure your team is working for you.
© 2014 Mary F. Kelly