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Keep Your Attorney's Fees Low In Divorce

Eight Tips To Keep Your Attorney’s Fees Low In Divorce

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Eight Tips To Keep Your Attorney’s Fees Low In Divorce

Divorcing spouses are scared shitless of attorney’s fees.  I can’t say I blame them.  They’ve heard about the cases that spiraled into nightmares.  They know Suzie down the street is still in to her divorce attorney for $95,000.  Now they’ve hired this person who can’t even give them a ballpark of how much their divorce will cost.  They signed the engagement agreement with all its legalese – somewhere in there was an obligation for a first-born child if you don’t pay up.  Now you’ve given a $10,000 “retainer” with no clue what a retainer is or how it works.  Supposedly it was in the paperwork you signed, but it seems to you to be some pool of money the attorney can skim from anytime he wishes.

This fear has lead to the rise of the flat-fee divorce, an alternative gamble you can read about here.  In this article, we’ll explore some tips to keep your attorney’s fees low in divorce.

Family Law Attorneys Haven’t Done Themselves Any Favors

Family law attorneys haven’t helped themselves, reputationally, when it comes to billing.  Some attorneys are all too happy to fee-rape a willing target.  They fail to counsel their clients on the cost-effectiveness of litigation strategies and tactics.  Instead of engaging in a difficult and frank analysis of how much fruit is likely to be yielded by deposing the children’s babysitters from six years ago, they simply send out the deposition subpoenas.  Instead of massaging offers and settlements to arrive at an agreeable alimony number, they run up $50,000 in fees taking the case to trial when it could’ve been settled for half that amount.

But Parties Contribute To The Problem Too

Parties need to take a hard look at themselves as well, though.  What Suzie down the street conveniently left out of her tales of woe was that she refused to settle for 65% of the marital assets, demanded lifetime alimony on her 12-year marriage, and forced half-a-dozen unnecessary “emergency” motions.

Time is literally money to an attorney.  Commandeer that time and you’ll pay.  Most of the time, parties like Suzie never believe the day will come when they must pay.  They assume their spouse will ultimately pay or the court will charitably pay them out of its “pity fund” or that they’ll be able to weasel out of them after a case (which a lot of times they do).

These nightmare scenarios lead some parties to navigate the treacherous waters of divorce without an attorney.  As much as I rail against most divorce practitioners and think the majority shouldn’t be allowed to litigate parking tickets, negotiating your own divorce – even if it’s uncontested – is like trying to fix your pipes without a plumber – sooner or later, you’ll end up covered in shit.  If you think a divorce is expensive, try living under a draconian divorce decree that can’t be reversed.  Paying $5,000 in attorney’s fees for a simple divorce is peanuts to getting bamboozled into an overbearing alimony obligation or being tricked into paying for private school expenses without any credit toward your child support.

Tips To Keep Your Attorney’s Fees Low In Divorce

Attorney’s fees don’t have to get out of hand, though, to successfully litigate a divorce.  Below are some tips to keep fees in check:

1.  Review Your Bills

You should receive at least monthly invoices itemizing your attorney’s time and expenses. If not, reassess your choice of attorney.

Review these invoices as they come in.  I’m amazed how many clients wait until the end of a case to bring up invoices from seven months before.  First, there is hardly a way to double check how much time was spent that long ago.  If it was addressed when the invoice came out, I can more easily reflect on the charge and perhaps reduce it if it was in error.  Second, when clients dispute invoices after a case, it appears that they’re simply nitpicking the bill because of the result and the cost – not because it’s incorrect.  In that case, I’m far less likely to cut time.

Check the invoices for accuracy.  Attorneys make mistakes like anyone else.  Sometimes incorrect charges appear.  It isn’t necessarily intentional, but multiple or numerous billing errors should lead to suspicion.  Review them for the time spent on certain tasks.  Hell – maybe even ask your spouse how much their attorney charged for a particular task.

At the end of a one case, the opposing attorney submitted his fee request to the judge and included his invoices.  They were a travesty and a raping for which the attorney should be ashamed.  Overbilling throughout – 3 hours for drafting the complaint, another 4 hours drafting document requests.  These were form documents every attorney has at the ready.  A few minor tweaks for case specifics and they’re good to go.  Most of the time paralegals complete these tasks in less than half an hour.  If the attorney’s client had bothered to review or question the invoices ahead of time, he’d have been able to disrobe his unethical attorney and saved himself tens of thousands in attorney’s fees.

2. Save Up Your Questions

Attorneys bill by each portion of an hour. Most commonly it’s in 6 minute increments or a tenth of an hour.  Every portion of six minutes the attorney spends on the case gets billed at 1/10th their hourly rate – or .1 as it’ll appear on the bill.  I should also note that these days most attorneys have a .2 minimum, even if the time they spent on a matter is 6 minutes or less.  The reasoning is that these geniuses’ minds, which would otherwise be curing cancer and solving world hunger instead of arguing over custody of the dogs, cannot turn on a dime and it takes at least .2 for their attention to shift between problems.

It sounds simple and self-evident, but clients who rack up the largest balances are those who take up the most 10ths.  They call first thing in the morning with one question.  That 8-minute call gets billed .2  for the two portions of six-minute increments.  They e-mail at lunch – that’s .1 to read the e-mail and .1 to respond.  Then there’s another call in the afternoon – .1.  Another couple e-mails and texts in the afternoon as random thoughts and fears enter their head – that’s at least a combined .3.  The total comes to .8 for the day.  Nearly a full hour the attorney billed – coming in somewhere around $300 – $500 for the day and nothing was accomplished.

Save up your questions.  Write them down.  At the end of the day or every other day, hop on a call or shoot one e-mail.  It’s far more cost-effective than a scattered and random approach.  It may not sound like much but considering each of those .1s translate into $30, $40, or even $50, it adds up over the course of a case.

3. Organize Your Documents

It’s highly likely your spouse’s attorney is going to ask for a bunch of documents – tax returns, banking and credit card statements, W2s, paystubs, etc. Even if the other side doesn’t ask, your own attorney will.  Even in the most amicable, settle immediately out of the gate divorces, I still want to see at least the past three months of account statements and paystubs, and the most recent tax return.

Oddly enough, there’s an exact correlation to emptying a dump truck of random papers in my office and getting billed for cleaning them up.  I’ve had beach bags, shoeboxes, and pocketbooks of records come in with no order whatsoever.  The client has gone through their drawers and offices and thrown in every random thing that may be important, without taking a moment to consider if they are, as if they’ve pulled a bank job and are on the clock.  Random dinner receipts, a vet bill from five years ago, recipe cards – I don’t need that shit.  The things I do need, the bank account statements, are a mishmash of chaos.  Accounts that no longer exist, May 2012’s statement followed by last month’s, followed by a deposit slip from college.  Somebody must organize that mess and if it’s either me or my paralegal, it’s going on the bill.

4. Get Your Interrogatory Answers in Shape

It’s likely that in addition to requesting documents, your spouse’s attorney will send interrogatories – questions you must answer under oath. It’s important to answer these correctly and strategically.  If your attorney has half a brain, they’ll review the final draft with you, massaging any issues.  What isn’t necessary is for your attorney to spend five hours pulling every answer from you like a tenth-grade calculus tutor.

I represented a spoiled twenty-something in a custody case once who was served with twenty of the easiest soft-ball interrogatories I’ve ever seen.  “Please identify every employer from the past five years…State every educational institution you’ve attended since high-school…Identify your greatest strengths and weaknesses as a parent.”  I set up a meeting with him the day before the answers were due, knowing they’d need a fair amount of polishing and that, otherwise, he’d never send me the answers.

When he got to my office, he hadn’t even started.  I’ll play the part of your secretary, recording your answers as you dictate them, but I’m going to charge for it.

5. Don’t Be “That Client”

At any given time, every attorney has at least one of “those clients.” There’s usually about 3 on the roster at any given time.  I know them.  My paralegal knows them.  The receptionist knows them.  They call at all times; not just to the office, but on my cell phone at home.  They Chicken Little every situation:  the dog got out – it must be my husband; my car got keyed at the grocery store, I know it was her and I need an emergency hearing; he was ten minutes late to the soccer game, he shouldn’t be allowed to ever see the kids again.

Not all hours bill the same.  Clients whose hours are easy to bill, who are easy to work with get their bills rounded down.  They get little cuts – $250 taken off one month as a “courtesy credit” or $500 at Christmas as a little holiday cheer.

“That” client get every minute billed to them.  Courthouse parking receipts that may otherwise find their way into the trash make it onto the bill.  Those five copies that otherwise would’ve been forgotten are sure to be recorded.

6. Speak to Your Spouse

If you can stomach it, speak to your spouse. See what you can work out on your own.  See if you can narrow some issues.  Talk rationally.  Divorces can spiral when two antagonistic attorneys get involved.  Motions get filed and hearings get scheduled.  The fires are stoked and everyone is ready for battle.  Take a step back.  Breathe.  Open a dialogue with your spouse and see if some order and rational thought can’t be brought to the situation.  This is by no means meant to convey the idea that you should settle your case behind your attorney’s back and without consultation.  Just see if you can simplify the case.

7. Consider the Cost Effectiveness

Every litigation tactic and move needs to be directed at one goal – getting divorced efficiently and with the best result.  Each decision, each step, motion, hearing, and discovery request all needs to drive toward that goal.  If not, it’s merely fee padding by the attorney.  Sometimes a motion and a hearing over documents that haven’t been produced is necessary.  You may be missing critical documents.  The other side may need a hand-slap from the judge to signal they can’t ride roughshod over everyone.  But is it really necessary to spend $5,000 writing letters, filing motions, and holding hearings because you’re missing the March 2010 Citibank statement?

8. Know Your Attorney’s Role

I charge hundreds more than a therapist but without the qualifications.  I’m not your best friend.  I can’t help you work through the psychological and emotional issues that you’re facing in the divorce.  But I’m still going to charge you for the two-hour phone call wherein you blame everyone from your mother to your wife to the dog, ask for answers from the heavens, and tell me what all the folks at the country club think of the divorce.

The fear of attorney’s fees is well placed, but shouldn’t deter parties from hiring an attorney.  View it as a necessary evil if you’d like, but the operative word is necessary.  Choosing a the right divorce attorney can also go along to keeping fees reasonable.  Check out our article on how to choose a divorce attorney here.

Most of all, stay diligent, stay reasonable, and so will the attorney’s fees.

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