On Monday, we talked about the choices you can make at the beginning of your divorce to help keep your costs as low as possible. If you haven’t had a chance to read that piece, you really should! Just click here, and we’ll take you right to it. Today, we’re going to talk about how law firms work and how attorneys do their billing. There are some things that are pretty standard, and I’ll give you an idea of what to expect. There are also ways you can find differences between attorneys and firms, and make sense of what, at first glance, seems impossibly confusing.
If you’re thinking about hiring an attorney to represent you in your divorce action, you’ll definitely want to read this!
Hiring an attorney or doing it yourself
The first big choice you’ll have to make is whether you plan to hire an attorney to represent you or you prefer to do it yourself. As you can probably imagine, your choice has a lot to do with how much your divorce will cost overall.
You should absolutely hire an attorney to represent you if your divorce is going to be contested. Navigating the court system is incredibly complicated and, although Virginia law allows a person to represent herself without an attorney, I just don’t think that I can advise that in good conscience. It takes most attorneys several years before they handle their own completely contested divorce trial, and, by that time, they have tons of other experiences to draw from in court. It would be difficult for a person who is unfamiliar with the law to effectively represent herself in court without an attorney.
If your divorce is uncontested, though, it’s absolutely possible to handle your divorce yourself. There aren’t a lot of reputable do it yourself resources in Virginia, though, so you should be very careful about what you’re using. Make sure anything you consult is Virginia-specific, effectively drafted, and provides assistance or troubleshooting help if you need it.
Only you can really decide for yourself whether you should hire an attorney. But, in case you’re wondering about what is involved, we’ll talk about it.
If you are interested in hiring an attorney, you’ll probably want to do a lot of research first. What firms have the best reputation in the area? Within that firm, which of the attorneys practice family law? Is there an attorney with special knowledge about an issue that concerns you (whether that’s custody, property division, or real estate)?
After you narrow it down a little bit, you’ll be ready to schedule an initial consultation. Usually, there’s a fee associated with the initial consultation, so don’t be surprised when you call to make your appointment.
I thought attorneys offered initial consultations for free!
There are a lot of different kinds of attorneys, and different kinds of attorneys do things differently. Most of the time, for example, personal injury attorneys DO offer free consultations. Why? Well, their practice is different. Personal injury attorneys (you know, the guys you call if you slip or fall somewhere, or who help you if you’re injured in a car accident) take cases on contingent fees. A contingent fee is a fee arrangement where the attorney doesn’t get paid unless you win something, and then he takes a certain amount of what you get (usually something like 30%). So, these guys are out there looking for the case that’s going to bring millions and millions of dollars, and they’re willing to spend an hour of their time with you because of the possible payout for them.
For divorce attorneys, it doesn’t work that way. Even if we wanted to, we couldn’t operate that way. Because of the ethical rules that we have to follow, family law attorneys can’t take cases on a contingency basis. If we did, we could lose our license to practice law.
We’re not going to take 30% of anything that you get from your husband, and there probably aren’t millions of dollars, anyway. Family law cases are very different from personal injury cases, so the way we operate is totally different. Most of the time, family law attorneys charge for consultations.
What happens in an initial consultation?
When you pay for something, you expect to receive some value. Right? Of course! So, in our consultations, we try to provide as much value to the prospective client as possible. We sit down, talk about your unique situation, and come up with a solution designed to fit your needs. We answer all your questions, discuss alternatives, weigh costs and benefits of different choices, and make sure we figure out what’s most important to you. We can’t always tell you exactly what you want to hear, but we can be open, honest, and candid about what you can realistically expect to receive out of your divorce.
We charge for the consultation, but we give a lot of value, too.
So how do I really tell how much an attorney costs?
When people call in to schedule consultations with us, they seem very fixated on what the initial consultation costs. I understand why. It’s really the only cost they can see up front, and it’s the only way they can price shop. They don’t know, ahead of time, exactly how much a retainer is going to be, so they can’t call ahead to six different law firms and find out who offers the lowest retainer. (We’ll talk more about what a retainer is in a minute).
But, the thing is, the initial consultation fee isn’t really a good barometer of what your divorce will actually cost you. Like we discussed at length in Monday’s post, a lot of the choices that you make directly impact the cost of representation. Still, the attorney (and the attorney’s law firm) set their prices at a certain level, too. If you want to find out everything you can about how much your divorce might cost you, these are the questions you’ll want to ask.
Family law attorneys set retainers. Usually they do this in their initial consultation, and it’s basically the amount you have to pay in order for the attorney to take your case. It’s not a flat fee, so it doesn’t mean that your retainer amount is how much your case is going to cost and you’ll never have to pay more than that amount.
A retainer fee is an amount of money that we put in an escrow account (or a trust account, whichever you prefer to call it) with your name on it. It’s your money, and it stays your money until we do work. We bill at a specific hourly rate (more on that later), and we transfer the money into our account as the work is completed. Whatever is left at the end of your case is refunded to you. Similarly, if we end up spending more than the retainer amount, you would be asked to replenish the balance in your account.
Just because one law firm asks for more or less money in your retainer doesn’t mean that one firm costs more than the other. Since it’s not a flat fee, your case can cost more or less than the retainer quoted. We don’t make any real guarantees with respect to fees, because we have no way of knowing (especially not in the first hour of meeting you) exactly how much it’s going to cost. Based on what you tell us, it could be more or it could be less than what we think initially. I’ve seen it happen both ways.
I can’t speak for how other attorneys in other law firms handle these types of cases, but I imagine it’s pretty similar. Still, all I can do is talk generally about how we do things. Still, understand that each attorney is responsible for his or her own practice, including how fees are set. Each attorney can set their own fees or choose to handle a case in their own way, which may or may not be typical.
The retainer amount you are quoted will be different if you’re planning on moving forward with an uncontested, no fault divorce versus a contested fault or no fault divorce. Obviously, for a contested divorce, the retainers start much higher than the uncontested divorces. Keep in mind, though, that if you hire an attorney for a contested divorce, and then your case suddenly settles, you could easily move forward with an uncontested divorce and end up with money being refunded to you.
Probably a much more accurate barometer of how much an attorney really charges is his or her hourly rate. There is a lot of variation in the hourly rates of different attorneys, so that’s something worth calling around and asking. You may be charged a $5,000 retainer at any number of firms, but your $5,000 will go a lot further if you are paying an attorney with a $200 an hour rate versus an attorney with a $350 hourly rate.
What if I can’t pay the retainer?
Most firms require that retainer fees be paid up front in order to open the case. We require retainer fees so that we can be sure we’ll get paid for the work that we do. You may find a firm that is a little more relaxed about retainer fees, but it’s probably unlikely.
Attorneys aren’t miracle workers, so we obviously can’t magically make money exist. I can tell you that a lot of our clients pay their retainer fees by getting loans from family or friends, putting it on their credit cards, or even by taking a loan or a withdrawal from their retirement accounts. Financially, it’s often pretty difficult to hire an attorney.
We know and understand that it’s difficult. We pride ourselves on providing superior legal services to our clients, and we’ve worked hard to keep our costs as low and as reasonable as possible. Still, that may or may not be something that you can afford. It’s a good idea to sit down and look at your budget, and come up with a reasonable idea of what you can pay (including what you can borrow or any loan you may be able to take out). That way, when you go in to meet with the attorney, you’ll have an idea of where you sit financially and whether the retainer fee is really something you’re going to be able to pay.
If you can’t afford to hire an attorney, we offer a lot of other programs that are designed to help women in exactly this kind of situation.
Second Saturday Seminars
Our Second Saturday seminars are taught monthly, and are designed to help teach Virginia women what they need to know about the divorce process. Each seminar is taught by one of our licensed and experienced Virginia divorce and custody attorneys, who are also on hand to answer your questions about what to expect during divorce. To register or get more information, visit our website by clicking here.
Custody Bootcamp for Moms
Custody Bootcamp for Moms is a day long seminar, taught by Katie Carter, and designed to help teach Virginia moms what they need to do to represent themselves in a custody case in the juvenile and domestic relations court. It’s powerful stuff, not taught anywhere else. Walk into the courtroom with your head held high and represent yourself. You can absolutely do it. For more information, please visit CustodySeminar.com!
You do have options! Whether you choose to hire an attorney or do it on your own, we’ve provided the resources you need to do a good job and feel confident. Whether you’re drafting legal documents or preparing for a hearing in front of a judge, we can help make sure you’re prepared and savvy enough to handle it. Good luck!