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Where to Find Help

I receive emails everyday from friends, family, and the community asking how to find support for their legal  endeavors.  Support is important during difficult transitions for you and/or your family.  There are two areas of support for a person involved in a family legal matter.  Support from family and friends and professional support.  The first place one finds support is through family and friends.  It is important to have an emotional outlet that may not present in a professional setting.  Divorce, separation, and family transitions are among the top most stressful situations during a person’s lifetime.  Having family and friends around to provide empathy, encouragement, and trust can help ease your transition into a new lifestyle.  Family and friends, though, should not be your only  support group as solid objective advice is what is most beneficial during emotional times.  When a person makes decisions solely on emotions, that decision has not been thoroughly  analyzed and likely is not the decision the person would make once the emotion is removed (such as when time passes). Emotional decisions must consider an objective perspective.

The second place one should seek support is through a professional.   Professional objective advice and support, however,  can be costly and you must seriously consider your options and conduct your research.  Finding a trusted professional will be the best investment you can make.  The professional will help you navigate through your issues and help you make appropriate decisions that are best for you and your family.  Sometimes that professional will say things that you do not want to hear, but it is the objective truth and you must try to listen.  To look for a supportive legal  professional in your area please visit www.collaborativepractice.com.

Cost of Mediation

Clients and court ordered parties of mediation often wonder about the cost of mediation.  If the court sent me here, why do I have to pay for it?  If my spouse and I are the ones agreeing to settle, why do I have to pay for it?

The hourly fee for mediation includes the value of the skills and expertise of the mediator, the training of the professional that allows that person to be qualified to handle mediation cases, and the benefits of not being subject to a long court battle, etc.  It takes years of experience to be a mediator that can settle a case in a few hours.  Those years of experience have value.  I vaguely remember a story, forgive me as I can’t remember the details right now, but it goes something like this:  a person approached a painter on the street and asked him to paint their portrait.  The painter finished the portrait  in 5 minutes and asked for payment that far exceeded the expectation of the subject of the painting.  The subject objected and asked why the painting was so expensive when it only took 5 minutes to complete, and the painter responded, “ah, to you it took 5 minutes to paint, but in reality it took a lifetime to paint that portrait .”  The point is there is value in an expert’s training, ability, and experience.

The Court, lawyers, other mediators, and parties have contributed to the  devalue of  mediation services. “Giving Back or Just Giving It Away: Can Mediators Empower Others If We  De-Value Our Own Expertise? By Sid Cohen is a great article that examines the problems with perceived value on mediation.  See http://www.mediate.com/articles/cohenSig1.cfm?nl=278

Family Mediation

Mediation is a wonderful alternative to courtroom litigation. The parties of a dispute control the decision-making process with the assistance of a neutral party (the mediator). The mediator is not a judge and will not decide the outcome, rather the mediator  facilitates communication and ensures all parties respect boundaries and ground rules. Mediation allows the parties to openly discuss their concerns and possible solutions without being limited by what is “relevant” to a court of law.  Mediation is often used for contract disputes or custody and visitation issues, etc.   People don’t realize it, but  it can be used for married couples too.  It can help couples communicate and work through their issues instead of filing for divorce.  Often mediation costs much less than traditional litigation.  If you are looking for a mediator in your area, visit www.mediationcouncilof illinois.org,  www.mediate.com, or www.birt-law.com.

Fear of the cost for legal services

During a consultation, a client wants to learn an attorneys hourly rate, the retainer amount, and how much the whole thing is going to cost.  Sure, they listen to the explanation of the divorce or custody process, they ask questions about “what they can get”, but what they really walk away remembering is the amount of money they are going to spend – or the amount they think they are going to spend.

It is nearly impossible for an attorney to tell you how much it is going to cost to get divorced or separated. Each case is different and each client has different requests or demands that need to be addressed.  Court based litigation is always going to cost the most.  In general, family law attorneys have two billable hour rates: an in-office rate and and a higher out of office rate.  If you want your attorney fighting in court, you will pay for the higher out of office rate during the times your attorney is in court.  You will also pay for any court appearance, regardless if something is resolved in court or not, because once you subject yourself to litigation, you subject yourself to the Court’s schedule.  If the Court can’t hear your case on a particular day, the case will get set over to a different day.  And the out of office billable hours  just keep adding up….

Now, there are times when litigation in a family law case is necessary:  Abuse, mental or physical;  Orders of protection; Addiction; Failure and/or refusal to disclose pertinent information; Any time you are not comfortable with an alternative to litigation.  Absent those issues, there are some great alternatives to family law litigation that generally cost less than litigation and generally result in agreements that both parties are inclined to follow. One option that I will discuss today is the option of hiring a consulting attorney or an attorney solely for the purpose of preparing the necessary documents to finalize a divorce in court.

For example, you have been married three (3) years, no kids, no assets, no debts.  It may be  possible to navigate through the divorce process on your own (“pro se party”).  This means you and your spouse or significant other will have to talk to one another, work out your issues, and agree to  all terms of a settlement agreement.  You will have to take time off of work to file a petition for dissolution of marriage, obtain a court date, and appear before a judge for a hearing to finalize the divorce.  If you do all this, it still would be worth the time and effort to hire an attorney on an hourly basis as a consulting attorney  or as an attorney to review the documents you have prepared.  I can’t tell you how many times pro se parties take a day off of work to finalize their divorce, appear before a judge, and are turned away because they don’t have the right paper work or the paper work is not in an acceptable form for the Court.  Don’t waste your time, hire an attorney to at least review your documents or pay an attorney a fee to draft the necessary paper work and appear on that last, but most important, day in court.

Appearing  in court with an attorney will likely get your case called faster (which means you may just  get out of the court house before 10 am!), guarantee that the papers will be accepted by the judge, and please the Court (since they will now be able to move on to the other 100 cases they have to hear that day).  The prove-up hearing (the hearing that finalizes the divorce) should take 5-10 minutes with an attorney in front of the judge.  If you do it on your own, you could be there all morning and you may still have to take another day off of work to return to court on some future date.  Remember, you can always discuss the hourly rate with an attorney, so don’t let the cost of legal services deter you from doing it right the first time.

Tomorrow, additional alternatives to courtroom litigation will be discussed….

Engagement Agreements – a valuable tool for clients

Ending a relationship is difficult. There will be sadness, grief, and some long nights to endure. Friends and family can and will provide support during this difficult time. As much as you will need your family and/or friends, you will also need someone to help you cut through the fog and think realistically and logically. You may need to listen to the things you just don’t want to hear.  For example, if you have children, joint assets, joint debts, and/or rights to the benefits of your spouse or significant other, it is worth the time, cost, and energy to find an attorney that will work with you, educate you, and likely give you a much needed strong dose of reality.

Interview attorneys.  That is what a consultation is for.  Some attorneys advertise that they are “aggressive” but that usually means that they will charge you a huge amount for every second spent developing an issue that you didn’t even realize needed to be resolved.  Some attorneys will take any case that walks through the door regardless if they are familiar with an area of  law or not and leave files and clients sitting for weeks or months without any resolution to the case.  Then there are attorneys that actually  listen to your concerns and proceed with services after consulting you and after obtaining your authority.  Again, interview attorneys. You need to know how that attorney approaches cases and you will need to know that you  feel comfortable with your attorney.

In Illinois, parties and attorneys must sign an engagement agreement for family law services.  Some clients do not what to do this, I am not sure why.  This agreement spells out how your attorney will be handling your case, the cost of services and a retainer agreement, and how and under what circumstances your relationship with your attorney will end.  All important things for the client.   Read the agreement.  Most clients/attorney disputes or misunderstandings could have been avoided if the client read and reviewed the engagement agreement.

There are no rules that the engagement agreement cannot be modified.  Discuss the agreement with the attorney. If you want to hire the attorney but your financial circumstances are problematic, discuss a possible reduction in the hourly rate of the attorney or a modification of the retainer amount.  Do not be afraid of the engagement agreement.  Use it as a tool to get to know the attorney, his/her work ethic, and whether or not you and the attorney are compatible.