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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.