One of the biggest questions in any divorce and custody case is “How will I pay for it?” For almost anyone, no matter how high or low of an earner they are, it’s a bit of a stretch financially.
I look at a lot of people’s various account information, so, I can tell you, almost without exception, people don’t have as much saved as you might think. So many of us live up to our incomes completely so that coming up with $2,500, $5,000, or more in a single transaction is difficult.
So, just because you find yourself here, reading this article, I don’t want you to think that you’re alone, or that there’s something embarrassing about not being able to fork over the amount of money needed to hire your attorney right away. Especially in a pandemic! Everyone’s financial situations have changed over the last several months, and, if you’re finding things a little difficult to afford, well, you’re in good company at least.
We get questions all the time about payment plans, too. Do we accept them? How does it work?
I guess it depends on what, exactly, you mean by a payment plan. A retainer fee is an amount of money that needs to be paid up front, so if you’re asking whether we can take a smaller amount and go ahead and get started on your case anyway, the answer is no.
If you’re asking whether we’ll hold on to your money, a little bit at a time, until you’ve saved enough to pay the amount in full and then start on your case, the answer is yes.
We often have people who are slowly paying down their retainers, and who find it helpful just to have that money saved in some other place instead of sitting in their bank account. If that’s helpful to you at all, we’re happy to do it.
If not, and you’d prefer to save in your own account until you have enough to afford the retainer, that’s fine, too.
We can’t get started on less than the full retainer amount, though. For a couple (in my opinion) pretty good reasons, too.
1. Once we’re in a contested case, we’re in – until an order of withdrawal is signed or a judge lets us out.
It’s often difficult to get out of cases, especially where not everyone agrees. A nasty attorney on the other side, an irritated judge, or a difficult client can keep us stuck on a case even when the relationship has taken a turn for the worse.
This doesn’t happen often, but when it happens its traumatic enough for us that we like to avoid running into this situation in the future. We take the money up front – though it’s still your money and the unpaid portion is fully refundable to you in the event you terminate the relationship early, for any reason, including reconciliation – to ensure that we get paid for the work as the case progresses.
If we didn’t take it up front, we’d rack up fees – especially in a hotly contested case, where there’s at trial – and we’d struggle to recover it. It’s an unfortunate reality, but we have lights to keep on, paralegals to pay, and student loans to cover – so we do need to get paid for our work, just like you probably need to be paid for yours.
Imagine if your boss expected you to come to work without being paid – for an indeterminate amount of time, but perhaps YEARS – and still provide an exceptional quality of service. That’s what it can be like to be an attorney.
The retainer is both a filter – it ensures that people who can afford and value our service obtain it – and a necessary level of protection that keeps us from being stuck in indentured servitude.
I know, I know. There’s still a gap between people who need our services and people who can afford it. In many cases, people truly need expert legal help in complicated cases, but they don’t have the resources to afford to hire an attorney. We get lots of questions about pro bono work; I think every law firm probably does. The truth is that pro bono isn’t offered nearly as much as the regular consumer seems to think that it is. We do not take cases pro bono.
2. It helps you start your case ahead of the curve, instead of setting you up for a permanent (and very stressful) game of catch up.
It’s important to have money in trust. Even though a retainer fee is not an estimate of what the total overall costs in a case will be, it’s an amount that is designed to at least get you started.
Imagine if you hired an attorney on a contested case with $1500 or $2000, and it was spent immediately – filing for divorce, scheduling a pendente lite hearing, attending a hearing, and preparing discovery. Now, you’re in the thick of it, and your money is gone – you’ll need several thousand more to even make a dent in all the work that needs to be done.
Then, your attorney receives your discovery – and there’s hours of work there – and you are up against a deadline (a literal DEADLINE, where the court can impose sanctions if you don’t respond!) to come up with a lot of money.
I get it. Five thousand dollars – or more – is hard to come up with. But, if you had it, you wouldn’t be scraping bottom so quickly, and you could get further in your case. Your case would stress you less, you’d be more equipped to handle the challenges, and it would keep you in a better headspace in order to reach a settlement or negotiate effectively.
Look, it’s challenging enough as it is. You don’t want to let your concern – or your panic – about money drive you. It’s hard enough without feeling so triggered.
I know it’s a lot of money, but it really is helpful to have it in a trust account up front. And, if you truly can’t afford the retainer, maybe you’re looking into hiring the wrong attorney.
I’ve talked about attorney’s fees before, but it’s difficult to get him to pay. The judge really does view people as being responsible for being able to hire attorneys that they can afford, so maybe if you can’t afford it, it’s time to shop around.
We often charge hourly, based on the time spent to do work, and our hourly rate (which is also something you should consider – not just the retainer fee) is based on our level of experience. You may be able to find someone cheaper, if you look around, especially if you find someone practicing on his or her own or a newly licensed attorney.
It’s definitely worth being aware of what options are available to you, including payment plans. It’s difficult to avoid divorce and custody representation, so you may also want to look into alternatives – do it yourself, mediation, negotiation, collaboration, pro bono services, or legal aid.
For more information, or to schedule a consultation with our office, give us a call at 757-425-5200.