Sense and Cents of Divorce

Few words in the English language can make people as uncomfortable as the term “divorce”. This is in part due to the fact that divorce marks the end of a relationship, and with that, significant emotional and familial ties; further, divorce also signifies a major financial shift.

In addition to now having to support two households from the same source of funds which used to support one household, there is the newly added expenditure of attorney’s fees and costs in connection with the divorce. There is a widespread belief that a divorce will cost an individual a lot of money, and that the attorney’s fees will drain the community estate. Thus, there is a heightened sense of the “cents” in divorce: the thought that each phone call, email received or sent, or photocopy made by the family law attorney will grossly heighten the fees in the case, drain the bank accounts, and whittle down the community. While there is no doubt this can occur, there are ways to manage this expense, but the trick is to not manage costs at the expense of the case itself; in essence, the litigation becomes about the quantity, and not the quality, of the fees incurred.

As a result, some litigants might restrict their communication with their family law attorney hoping to save money by communicating via emails instead of phone calls, or by providing minimal responses to questions in a hope that their monthly invoice will reflect a smaller charge (i.e., a “savings”) in legal fees. However, many times, there isn’t actually a savings because attorneys charge for their time, often in minimum increments, resulting in many small charges that are ineffective in moving one’s family law matter forward to a full resolution.

This “penny wise and a pound foolish” approach by a client may hurt a litigant’s case, delay the momentum of an efficient resolution, and leaves questions unanswered and issues unresolved, in a quest to save on attorney’s fees. While working with an experienced family law attorney is important, there are many ways to improve the quality of legal fees incurred to obtain the best results in your family law proceeding:

  1. Emails.  Rather than send small, one-line emails throughout the day about various issues, keep an email draft in your inbox, and use it like a journal. Record the various issues and questions that might pop up that week, review and revise, and send one email to your family law attorney at the end of the week.  Of course, if an emergency has arisen, immediate contact with your attorney is mandated. This approach is more cost effective because the attorney is able to focus and address the issues comprehensibly which is far more efficient and the work actually performed may exceed the minimum billing increment.  In other words, if a client emails a short email to a lawyer, the client may be charged the minimum increment even though the lawyer did not actually spend that amount of time on the email; as opposed to sending one comprehensive email which the lawyer will often spend the actual time equal to the minimum increment addressing.
  2. Documents.  Instead of phone tag or email tag regarding questions about various documents, set up a meeting with your family law attorney to review the documents together. This way, you and your attorney will effectively, and literally, be on the same page.  This applies to documents you or the other side have provided to the attorney; and to pleadings prepared by the attorney.
  3. Clarity.  Be clear with your family law attorney about your goals: be open and communicate your desired outcome.
  4. Buy Your Peace: Sometimes it might be better to spend or concede a little more in settlement thereby “buying your peace”. Arguing back and forth about small sums of money will only increase your and your spouse’s attorney’s fees, prolong your case, and inhibit your ability to truly move forward with your life. Work with your attorney to do a cost-benefit analysis (litigation vs. settlement).  Litigation is expensive, the cost of which often exceeds the amount in dispute and preventing settlement.

Sometimes, the best money spent may just be that one hour in-person meeting, or that seemingly lengthy phone call with your family law attorney. Your attorney will gain a greater understanding of your desired outcome, and you will gain a stronger understanding of what it takes to settle or litigate your matter. While a family law attorney’s hourly rate may indeed make one squirm, the quality of the meeting, or of the email or telephone call, makes better sense than the cents you may (or may not) save.