No matter what your personal financial situation, the cost of a divorce is intimidating. Not so much because the actual cost is so great (though it certainly can be), but because it’s unknown. It’s not like buying a pair of shoes, where you can see that if you buy them at Amazon you’ll pay some price, at Zappos you’ll pay something else, and at Nordstrom you’ll pay something different. You can choose to purchase from wherever gives you the best price, has the best return policy, offers the most cash back on ebates, or whatever other metric you’re using to evaluate and assess that purchase.
It’s reassuring to be able to price check across different retailers, and know that you’re getting a good price. It’s nice to know exactly, unequivocally, what that price is, too. It’s nice to be able to go straight to the sale section and find something at your price point, too. Say you need a new pair of pumps – they don’t have to be Jimmy Choos, after all. If something else fits your budget better and fits the bill, you can choose to purchase something different.
There’s not that much transparency in the legal industry. Not because we don’t want to be transparent, but because there are so many factors that affect the trajectory of a case in ways that we can’t necessarily predict, especially not after having spent an hour or less with a person in an initial consultation.
Cases can take many different shapes and forms, and can present all sorts of different issues. Because no two cases are the same, and no two cases involve the same people (husband and wife, attorneys, judges, guardians ad litem, etc – they all affect it!), it’s impossible to guesstimate. Even when a prospective client asks for a “ball park figure” (they ALL ask for ball park figures!) it’s hard to get in that ball park, especially when it comes to contested matters. Is it putting something in a ball park to say that a contested divorce case can easily range from between $20,000 to $80,000? And sometimes, of course, you hit a home run – which, of course, is where that metaphor ends, because nobody wins in a $80,000+ case, except *maybe* (and notice I say MAYBE – because, of course, these cases are stressful on us, too!) the lawyer.
Though it’s hard to estimate total overall costs, it is possible to compare costs, in a sense. The best way to gauge the relative expensive-ness of an attorney is to figure out what their hourly rate is. A retainer may be a barrier to entry if its set too high, but it’s ultimately not a predictor of how much your case will cost. A retainer is an amount of money, placed into a trust (or escrow) account with your name on it, and from which fees are taken as they are billed and earned by the attorney. The retainer makes sure the fees are paid; the hourly rate is what affects how much a case actually costs, because it affects how many hours of the attorney’s time you can buy with your money.
This is, too, where we come back to the metaphor of shoe shopping. You can’t buy Jimmy Choos for the same cost as Aldo pumps. And you can’t buy Aldos for the cost of a Wal-Mart special. Attorneys are the same; we charge different hourly rates based on our reputations and experience; you also have a duty not to hire a Jimmy Choo if all you can afford is an Aldo. Though it’s difficult to guess ahead of time how long a case will go on, whether it will ultimately go to court, how litigious he and/or his attorney will be (all of which impact how much a case costs) it is also important to be aware of the attorney’s hourly rate and how that can impact your total overall costs in a case.
It’s important, too, to be prepared – as prepared as you can be, that is – to structure things so that you’re able to save as much money as possible.
So, what can you do to save money?
1. Be prepared.
To the extent that any documents are necessary to explain or understand your case, bring them. Have copies made, and have them organized – in a folder is fine, nothing fancy, because we’ll take them out and put them in our own case binders – so that it makes sense. It doesn’t matter how you organize, just that you have organized them so it’s easy to see what’s there. Oldest to newest, newest to oldest – whatever goes.
That means, if a case has been filed, bring the pleadings. If you have a prenup, bring the prenup. Any documents related to your case should be easy to access.
It may even save money to provide your copies digitally, because then no paralegal will be billing for scanning. Talk to your attorney about whether this is a billable activity in her office.
2. Be well organized.
It’s a good idea, too, to be pretty well versed in your own particular situation – to the degree that is possible – ahead of time.
You should know what’s remaining on the mortgage (and have statements, if necessary), how much debt there is, what’s in the retirement accounts, etc. Knowing what you have and where it is will save a lot of time later. It could mean that, instead of lengthy discovery processes, we’re able to jump ahead a few steps – saving both time and money.
3. Ask questions.
Some of the people who spend the most on their cases are the ones who constantly email with questions. Though questions are encouraged (you should understand and feel comfortable with the process!), there’s a way to do it.
Ideally, you ask more than one question at a time so that you minimize multiple back and forths. It’s also a good idea to read the response, and keep the email for later reference, just in case. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve answered the same question repeatedly! It’s fine, I don’t mind – but it’s cheaper to just reflect back on a previous email.
4. Talk to your attorney.
Have a full and frank conversation with your attorney about costs and how to keep them low. I mean, a polite conversation, obviously – but it’s always smart to keep your attorney on the same page with you, and familiarize them with your specific concerns. Ask them what you can do to cut down on costs. Some attorneys let their clients, for example, drop packets off at the court, rather than paying a courier (when there’s a deadline; when there’s not, obviously, we often mail). There are often opportunities to save money that you might not even be aware of.
It’s also possible that your attorney is making choices on your behalf that are designed to save you money, and, if you ask, she’ll tell you. Also watch your bill for things that are no charged; consider those little gifts to you as well. Most of us are very cost conscious, and we do what we can to keep costs manageable – it’s just that we don’t control them, either.
Divorce is expensive. And it’s hard to estimate ahead of time exactly what it’ll cost. But you can take steps to ensure that you control what can be controlled.
For more information, or to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at 757-425-5200.