People have been postponing divorce due to the economic downturn, but this appears to be changing. Divorce attorneys are busier than ever and clients are expecting more efficiency and value than ever before. While attorneys should become more efficient in dispensing legal services as they become more experienced in the law, the client remains an important part of the overall cost equation in a divorce or child custody proceeding. I previously blogged about 5 Things You Can Do to Help Your Divorce Attorney Keep Your Attorneys’ Fees Down and offer here 5 more things you can do to help reduce legal expenses.
- Do a weekly call or email to your attorney with your questions and concerns. Obviously an emergency or crisis requires immediate contact; but for most people, an emergency or crisis is the exception and not the rule in a case. Therefore, it is a good idea to make a weekly list of your latest questions or concerns and discuss them with your attorney during a single phone call or in a single email. The reason this saves you money is because most lawyers charge a minimum fee for answering a phone call or email. Therefore, every time you do an email or call, even if it takes the lawyer 5 minutes to address it, you are often charged a minimum which may exceed the cost of the actual time spent. These minimums must be disclosed in the lawyer’s engagement agreement, so read yours carefully. This gets expensive when you send several emails or make several calls a day to your lawyer whenever a question “pops into your head.” If you send one email or make one call a week (or other interval which seems appropriate for you), then the lawyer’s minimum will likely be exceeded, you are only charged for the actual time spent, and the lawyer is typically more efficient by focusing on all your questions at one time and providing more comprehensive advice.
- Cost /Benefit Analysis of Financial Issues. Most, if not all, financial issues can be weighed by comparing the money involved against the cost of pursing a position. This means the financial issues need to be looked at from a business perspective. If you cannot do this analysis on your own, ask your attorney to do so. Believe it or not, you are in control of much of what your lawyer does in your case. If you tell your lawyer to settle an issue at a certain amount, or tell your lawyer to not pursue a particular issue, your lawyer must follow your instruction. If your lawyer feels it would be malpractice to abandon an issue or not to engage in reasonable due diligence, then you need to carefully review your continued work with this lawyer. While there are some cases where the lawyer will refuse to work on the matter without engaging in a certain amount of due diligence, once this is done and shared with you your lawyer should allow you to make your own financial decision because you understand the facts and legal consequences involved. It is simply not good business to spend, for example, $5,000 in attorney’s fees to pursue $1,000 in the case. If you stand firm that you are doing it “for the principle of the matter,” just know that litigating on principle is expensive and rarely is a good business decision.
- Make a “Wish List” of What You Want. A lot of time and money gets spent in divorce and child custody matters when a client’s goals are driven by the emotions of the situation and thus are unrealistic. This is not uncommon. If your lawyer has not asked you to do so, you should make a “wish list” of what you would like to achieve in the final resolution of your matter. Once this is done, make an appointment to meet with your lawyer and review your list. Your lawyer should identify those items which are achievable, those that are possibly achievable and those items which are unrealistic. Once this is done, you have a good map of what (if anything) to litigate and what to focus on settling in negotiations.
- Employ a Mediator or Private Judge. I have written endlessly about the delays in the court system due to budget cuts and the pure inefficiency of the system. Everyone (even judges) agrees that the system is broken, increasing time and expense when a divorce or custody proceeding gets trapped in the system. Bringing a case to early resolution with a mediator, who is neutral and assists in a settlement, or with a private judge hired to make binding decisions, saves money and time. While many people “want their day in court,” they must understand this comes at an extraordinary cost which most people cannot afford. It is better to discuss these alternative approaches with your lawyer to understand how they will benefit you.
- Hire a Lawyer Who Spends At Least 75% of the Time on Family Law Matters. It is not just the number of years a lawyer has been practicing law which should make him or her efficient; it is also how much they focus on one practice area. Lawyers who spend at least 75% of their time on family law matters (divorce, child custody, spousal support, child support and property issues) will have a strong and efficient knowledge base to understand the issues in your case and can work efficiently to advise you and prepare your case for trial or settlement. While many cases have unique or complicating issues or difficult emotional or personal dynamics which can make resolution more expensive, at least you will not be paying such a lawyer to learn the basics.
Family law matters are complex because they are emotional, often financially devastating and present complex issues spanning many different subjects. A skilled and experienced family law attorney can employ his or her knowledge and capability in the most efficient way possible, yet the attorneys’ fees can still be staggering. Many people blame the lawyer for this, and sometimes that blame is justified. However, quite often the staggering fees are because a client does not follow the guidance provided by the lawyer, or makes unnecessary demands that run up the cost. I am hopeful my writing on how to help keep your own attorneys’ fees down helps to do so; you should not have to spend the money for your children’s college education on legal fees.