Everyone loves a lawyer joke. Me included, actually. Have you heard the genie one? I’ll do my best to do it justice, even though writing it out in a blog format isn’t normally the most hilarious way to try to tell a joke.
So, the way the story goes, there’s this guy. He rubs the side of a lamp, and a genie comes out. Predictably, the genie grants him three wishes.
“I wish for a world without lawyers,” he says, smugly.
“Done,” the genie answers, turning to go.
“What about my other two wishes?” the man asks, impatiently.
“So sue me,” the genie responds and then disappears.
The moral of the story, of course, is that no one likes lawyers until they need them. And, for a lot of people, there are various points throughout their lives when no one can do for them what a lawyer can. When you’re facing a divorce and custody case is a pretty good example of one of those times.
If you’re not in the business, though, you may wonder how to pick a lawyer. How can you tell a good one from a bad one? How much does a good lawyer cost?
Well, in my experience, the good lawyers and the bad lawyers cost about the same. After all, it’s not like the bad lawyer is like, ‘Oh, hey, I’m super bad at this, so I think I’ll charge a rate that is commensurate with my skill level’.
Spoiler alert: that does not happen.
I do find that newer lawyers charge at a lower rate than older, more established lawyers – but, again, relative youth is not necessarily a negative factor. As Lin Manuel Miranda would say, “young, scrappy and hungry,” amirite?
If you can’t tell a good lawyer from a bad lawyer based on their cost, how can you tell? Well, it’s kind of hard, to be honest. Most can talk a good talk; whether they can walk a good walk is a different analysis entirely.
We (or should I say, “I”) wrote a book for this exact situation – to help give you guidance about how to pick one lawyer over another. A lot of it comes down to whether you feel good about the attorney, whether you can be honest with them, and whether they can have a real, honest conversation with you about the advantages and disadvantages of your case and any particular action you might be considering. I’d want to ask, too, about experience handling similar cases, about experience in whichever court you find yourself in, experience with the attorney on the other side (if you know), and so on.
Sometimes, that means interviewing more than one attorney. It means talking to friends who’ve hired attorneys, and hearing what they have to say. (Though, I feel compelled to mention, again, that it’s generally not a good idea to get legal advice from non attorneys; I’m just talking about asking them about their experience with their attorney.)
If you’re really worried about your ability to hire a decent attorney, I definitely recommend that you read the book. And, while you’re at it, you might consider attending our monthly divorce seminar, just so you can be sure that you’re as familiar as possible with the subject matter. (The more you know, the better your questions will be, and the more you can get a gut check on whomever you decide to interview.)
So, now, I’m back to part of the original question. I see it as a two-parter – how much does a good attorney cost? It breaks down into (1) what is a GOOD attorney, and how do you tell, and (2) how much does it cost to hire one that falls into that ‘good’ category?
Lawyer fees are a little wonky, so I’ll explain.
The initial consultation fee
First, you have a consultation fee – the amount you pay for an initial meeting with a lawyer. Most family law attorneys charge a fee for this meeting. We’re different than personal injury attorneys, who generally don’t charge a fee. Why? Because a personal injury attorney is interviewing you to see whether your case would be worth their time. A family law attorney, on the other hand, is viewing the appointment as an opportunity to give you guidance and advice. It’s not a question of whether your case is ‘worth it’ to take; it’s an informational meeting where we come up with a plan for how to move forward.
Most initial consultations are 30 minutes to an hour, and range in cost from $200-500 for that time.
The Retainer Fee
Family law attorneys work on retainers. A retainer is an amount of money that you pay the attorney ahead of time. That money then goes into a retainer account (or an escrow account) and is billed from as the attorney does work.
It’s your money – and it stays your money – until the lawyer earns it, by doing work on your case.
A retainer fee is not a flat fee, though. Most retainer agreements (the contract you sign that governs your relationship with the lawyer and the law firm that she is part of) include details about how you’ll pay additional money into the escrow account as needed.
Yes, you pay up front. But, yes, it is also usually refundable to you – though I’d check your retainer agreement to know for sure. At our office, unused money in the trust account is refunded when the case is over.
The Attorney’s Hourly Rate
Attorneys charge hourly for their work; usually, their paralegals also have a separate, lower, hourly rate as well. In our area, attorney hourly rates range between $200-500 an hour, depending on the firm.
Can you find someone for less? Maybe. Is that person a good or a bad lawyer? I really couldn’t tell you. In bigger areas, like northern Virginia, the hourly rates are higher; in smaller, more rural areas, hourly rates tend to be lower.
How can you tell how much an attorney costs?
In general, I think it’s better to look at an attorney’s hourly rate than whatever they charge as a retainer, since the hourly rate dictates how quickly your money will be eaten up as the attorney does work.
How much work will it take? It’s hard to say, because there’s so many variables. If your husband is obnoxious (or the attorney he hires is), things will be exponentially more difficult. Generally, custody and spousal support are wild card issues in a case; retirement and real estate, for example, are not. So it’ll depend on what you’re fighting over, too, and, ultimately, whether you’re able to reach an agreement or whether you have to litigate in court.
You’re smart to be asking these questions, and I hope you feel you’re a little bit further along in terms of selecting a (good) lawyer at a (relatively) reasonable cost. It probably all seems astronomical to you now, but you already know more than you did.