Holding Legal Costs Down

Lawyers charge what the market will bear in order to make a profit from their services, but a client who understands how lawyers bill can hold down costs.

Attorneys use standard payment routines that are hourly rates, flat fees, retainers or contingent fees. In family law actions, the client should understand the following:

> Hourly rates mean the attorney is paid an agreed-upon hourly rate for the hours he or she works on a client’s case or matter until it is resolved.

> Flat fee means the attorney charges a competitive flat fee for certain types of legal work, such as a simple, uncontested divorce. Some lawyers offer unbundled services that are flat fee pricing to complete tasks, as opposed to the more common practice of hourly billing by full-service attorneys.

> A retainer is a fee paid up front before legal representation commences.

> A contingency fee is a routine where a lawyer is paid a portion of any recovery he or she gets for the client. Contingency fees are usually, but not always, calculated as a percentage of the recovery. In most contingency fee arrangements, the client does not pay his or her lawyer unless there is a recovery. Contingency fee agreements are prohibited in certain cases. There are some variations between states, but usually contingency fee agreements are prohibited in divorce, alimony and child support actions.

Often a lawyer may ask for a retainer against which he or she deducts money at his or her hourly rate. Sometimes, lawyers and clients agree to routines that blend one or more of these fee arrangements. For example, in some civil actions, lawyers will sometimes be paid at a reduced hourly rate with the understanding that an additional contingency fee will be paid on any recovery.

Hourly rates vary greatly depending. Rates may vary anywhere from $50 an hour to a $1,000 an hour or more. Lawyers in urban and major metropolitan areas tend to charge a lot more than lawyers in rural areas or small towns. A lawyer who is well known and experienced in a particular area of law charges a higher rate than those of a lawyer whom is less well known. Experienced lawyers charge more, and generally have higher overhead.

Divorce is fraught with costs — the emotional cost of a failed relationship, of children living in a two home family, of maintaining two households. In to all this, the client struggles to negotiate a contract at a time when he or she is often enduring great emotional and mental pain and suffering. This is no time for a financial blunder. At hundreds of dollars per hour, legal fees in a contested divorce can easily be in the tens of thousands of dollars.

In most family law actions, lawyers bill by the hour, and the clock is running every time the client talks to the lawyer. Anyone looking to hire a lawyer must remember that practicing law is first of all a business and that hiring a lawyer is a business deal.

Competent legal representation is expensive, but a client can hold down costs by remembering that time is money. As Abraham Lincoln put, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” In other words, lawyers bill for their time. The more time the lawyer invests in a case, the higher the legal fees will be. With this basic understanding the client can comprehend and manage legal fees. Time is the commodity. A client must ask when the lawyer is on the clock. Time should be used wisely. Many lawyers bill in six-minute increments, and most charge for every telephone call they receive. The frugal client bundles his or her questions rather than calling every time something comes to mind.

Because divorce is so stressful, many people are tempted to use their lawyers as priests or psychologists. Lawyers are trained in legal problem solving, not mental health. A lawyer may have a sympathetic ear, but once again, he or she listens on the clock.

 Put simply, the more the client does for the case, the less work the lawyer has to do. Divorce lawyers have tools in place to help them gather the information that they must have. The client should invest the time and energy to complete the homework the lawyer provides. 

The client can be his or her own legal assistant. It is not unheard of for clients to also act as “runners” for the lawyer. Filing documents at the courthouse, delivering documents to the other attorney, can all be cheaper alternatives to attorneys, legal assistants, or couriers doing the work. 


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The Divorce Source, Inc. Editorial Staff consists of a team of divorce experts who are responsible for the ever so valuable content that is delivered through the Divorce Source Network. The members of the editorial team share the company's "passion for a better divorce" philosophy by providing as much divorce related information, products and services to help those who are contemplating or experiencing divorce.
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