Why does my Virginia divorce case cost so much?

Posted on Jul 27, 2016 by Katie Carter

At Second Saturday and also in my initial consultations, one of the first questions I am asked usually has to do with price. Usually, women want to know how much their case will cost. It’s a difficult question to answer, and one that I’ve tried to tackle from a million different angles. When it comes to cost, and estimating, in general, how much your divorce or custody case will ultimately cost you, there are a lot of different ways you can look at it. Today, I plan to talk about as many of those different ways of looking at things in an effort to help make sure you feel as informed as possible when it comes time to start making decisions about whether to hire an attorney—and, if so, whom.

The attorney’s hourly rate

Sometimes, I’ll try to talk about the attorney’s different hourly rates (which range, depending on their level of experience), rather than focusing on the retainer fees. In fact, this is often where I start, because the hourly rate is really the best barometer of total overall cost, and it’s one of the best means of comparing the expense associated with one attorney to the expense associated with working with another.
A retainer fee, which is generally the way people compare costs across firms, is a very misleading way to measure. A retainer fee is an amount of money that is paid up front, before a file can be opened with the law firm. It’s an amount of money that is put into an escrow account, and then billed from as work is done.
One law firm may charge a $1500 retainer while another charges a $5000 retainer. That doesn’t mean that the $1500 firm is cheaper; it just means that they have a lower fee required to simply take on the case. From that point, though, it has more to do with the attorney’s hourly rate. Retainer fees aren’t flat fees, after all, so more money could be required to finalize your case (and, depending on how complicated your case is, more may very well be necessary). If you’re wanting to compare total overall cost from one attorney to another, it’s best to look at the attorney’s hourly rate, and work backwards.
How many hours will your retainer fee get you? That’s a good place to start. A lower bar for the attorney to take on the case may be an attractive feature, too, but make sure you know that you can continue to pay your attorney’s bill—not just that you can pay the initial retainer.

The type of case

Of course, all cases are not created equal, and some are automatically going to be far more expensive than others. The type of case you plan to pursue is definitely something you should plan to keep in mind as you start the process. In some situations, you don’t have much choice—the case will cost what it’s going to cost, and there’s very little you can do about it. In others, though, you can lay the groundwork for a less contentious case.
An uncontested divorce is going to be your least expensive bet in almost every case. Custody cases, on the other hand, tend to be the most expensive, especially when we’re dealing with complicated extenuating circumstances—like CPS involvement, physical or sexual abuse, relocation, children with special needs, and so on. Contested divorces, too, are expensive, especially where numerous court appearances, settlement conferences, and mediations are involved.
Talk to an attorney about how to keep your costs to a minimum, and warning signs that might indicate that your case will cost more. Having an open and honest conversation with your attorney at the beginning of the case can often go a long way towards making sure that the two of you are on the same page, and working towards a common goal.

Pro Bono Divorce Services

I have talked several times about the availability of pro bono divorce and custody services, but the truth is that there are virtually none.
Everyone is familiar with the term pro bono, and many people expect that there will be an attorney willing and able to take on their case with little or no financial investment on their behalf. The truth, though, is that pro bono resources are few and far between. Though there are Legal Aid offices in Virginia (and you can contact them here), the attorneys on staff are underpaid and overworked and are often able to offer little more than a consultation (if you qualify) where they provide you information that you’ll need to pursue the case on your own.
Of the cases that Legal Aid takes on, almost all are uncontested. It probably seems unfair, but their reasoning is much like ours: uncontested divorces require a minimum of resources and time. By conserving resources, more people can be helped with the same amount of money. Since their funding is often limited (and, from what I understand, is frequently cut), spending the same amount of money and being able to help more people is a primary concern.
Still, if you’re hoping to receive assistance from Legal Aid, give them a call. See if you can have, at least, a consultation. It’s worth a shot, right?

Working with the attorney

Of course, a lot of the factors that affect total overall cost have to do with how you behave once you’ve hired your attorney. We give our clients tips and tricks all the time to help them save money, and I’m happy to share with you the information we tell our own clients.

1. Be organized.

To the extent that you can, make sure that everything you provide to your attorney is organized and makes sense. When we do things that require a lot of information, like conduct discovery or prepare a draft of a separation agreement, there will be a lot of work required of you. We’ll need statements—like bank accounts, mortgage interest, tax returns, and so on—to get our information (and make sure that we’re giving you the best representation), and all of that will have to come from you. If you give us a shoebox full of receipts, or a jumbled mess of statements in no particular order, it will take us time to go through it and figure out what’s there. To the best of your ability, organize things yourself, before you bring it in. You’ll save a lot of money, and we’ll be saved from pulling our hair out. (Not literally, of course—I’m trying to make a joke.)

2. Set phone appointments.

Nothing is more difficult than being in the middle of something and having to abruptly change things up and think about something else. When a client calls, unannounced, in the middle of the day, it’s often disruptive.
That’s not to say, of course, that you shouldn’t call if you have a particular issue to discuss. You’re going through something important (and probably traumatic), and you’re paying for legal advice to help you navigate some of the trickier aspects. You should feel free to ask your attorney for advice when you need to—but there’s a better way.
Instead of calling and expecting to talk to the attorney immediately (which is often difficult or impossible, since family law attorneys are in and out of court appearances, client meetings, depositions, and settlement conferences almost every day), call and set a phone appointment instead, just like you would if you called the doctor. That way, you know that when the time comes for your appointment, the attorney has time set aside for you and has nothing else to do but talk to you about what’s happening in your case.
Even better? Send the attorney (by email or fax) an agenda for what you’d like to discuss. That way, the attorney can review your file or do any necessary legal research before you get on the phone, and be ready to discuss your issues until you feel better about it.

3. Remember: we have to bill for our time.

Every so often, we have a client who calls and always says, “I don’t want to be billed for this.” It’s frustrating for us, of course, because our time and expertise is really all we have to “sell,” so to speak. It’s not that we love to charge for our time; it’s just that this is how it works. When you hire an attorney, what you’re hiring them to do is exercise their judgment to make sure that you’re able to get the best possible deal. We have to bill for our time—and that includes time spent talking on the phone, emailing, writing a letter to opposing counsel, or basically anything that we need to do to move your case forward.
Of course, there are plenty of things that we DON’T charge for. For example, we never charge a client who calls to discuss a problem with a bill. We also frequently no charge for things that we could otherwise charge for. I’m pretty notorious, in fact, for answering my emails without charging—especially if it doesn’t take me very long to do it. Still, there are times where I WILL charge for an email. After all, we’ve got lights to keep on, too. Do you do your job without getting paid for it? Probably not.
We represent women only, so we are particularly careful custodians when it comes to our client’s money. Many of us having been divorced ourselves, we are only too aware of how much everything costs, and, at the end of the day, we want to make sure that our clients walk away feeling like their experience with us was positive. Our attorneys and staff take great pride in what we do, and we’re incredibly experienced. In fact, we’re the largest family law firm in the country representing women only—so we definitely occupy a pretty special place. (Which is probably why you’re here, reading my article, right?) We have a certain level of expertise, and, though we are careful to bill appropriately, we do bill.  Hey, we’ve got to keep the lights on!
We’re careful, though, and we’re open to having an honest and frank discussion about your expenses, and how to keep them down as much as possible. Talk to us. You’ll find that we’re human, that we’re creative, and that we’ll do what it takes to make sure you feel as comfortable as possible with your representation.
For more information about costs, or to come in and meet with one of our attorneys one on one to discuss your unique case in more detail, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200. You definitely won’t find a more caring, compassionate group of attorneys with more experience handling women’s issues in divorce and custody cases. You’re in the right place. You’ll be glad you called.