Saving Money on Virginia Divorce

On Monday, we talked about how to tell good attorneys from bad ones and how much divorce really costs.   If you haven’t had a chance to check it out, you definitely should!
Hiring an attorney is a pretty scary thing, and not something that you have to do all the time, so it’s difficult to have a lot of experience or up-to-date information about the law, the courts, and attorneys in your area.  It’s confusing because there’s so much information out there, and it’s hard to know who to trust.  Who just talks the talk, and who actually walks the walk?
As you already know, hiring an attorney will make a big difference in the way your case moves forward.  It can be a decision that costs you thousands of dollars, or one that helps put you in a better position than you thought possible.  In many ways, hiring the right attorney for your case can be the difference between success and failure.  And, in divorce, you want to make sure you’re on the successful side of things.  There’s a LOT at stake!
I know how you feel.  I’ve been on your side of things, trying to decide whether or not to hire an attorney and, if so, whom.  It was a really stressful decision!  In the long run, though, because of the complexity of my case (and, of course, the fact that it was a case that’s outside my area of expertise), I decided that it would be most advantageous to me to hire an attorney to represent me.  In other types of cases, I’ve represented myself, too.  It really all depends.
There are plenty of cases, even in divorce, where you could represent yourself.  Like with everything else, it really depends on how complicated your case is, how much you’re willing to do on your own, and whether you’re confident in your own abilities.  If you’re worried about the costs of your case (and, really, who isn’t?) and you’re wondering how you can keep your costs down, you’re in the right place.

Money matters, and it’s important to go in to your divorce case knowing as much as possible so that you can make the best financial decisions for yourself and your family.  Let’s talk about ways to save money, whether or not you’re planning on hiring an attorney.

Do I need to hire an attorney?

Maybe, maybe not.  If you’re thinking that your divorce will be contested (meaning that you won’t be able to reach an agreement and will probably need to let the judge decide), you probably should hire an attorney.
If, on the other hand, it’s likely that your divorce is going to be uncontested (meaning that you think that, with a little negotiation back and forth, it will likely be possible to reach an agreement on your own, without the intervention of a judge), it may be possible to represent yourself.
Of course, it’s a personal decision.  One that you should make with great care and with as much information as possible, and taking a lot of factors into account.
All do it yourself divorces are not the same.  In fact, there’s a wide variety of information available, especially online.
You probably already know, though, that you need to be careful about information you find on the Internet.  There are lots of things out there, but, when it comes to your divorce or custody case, you don’t want to trust it all to a nameless, faceless Internet source.  Before you rely on anything too heavily, make sure that the information you’re getting (1) comes from a licensed attorney, (2) is Virginia-specific, (3) is recent, and (4) educates you about your options, including how the law works and what might potentially happen should you take your case (or any particular issue in it) to court.  Bonus: (5) Can you ask questions if you’re unsure or confused?
It’s a tall order, but, without all those factors, it’s impossible to know that the information you’re getting is good and reliable and, if you can’t do that, you have no business relying on it.  There’s just too much at stake and “well, it sounded good,” or “I didn’t understand,” isn’t going to help you much if you get in trouble.
There are lots of free forms available online.  But can you trust them?  If they don’t meet the 4 criteria I outlined earlier, I wouldn’t!

If I decide to hire an attorney, how can I be sure that I save as much money as possible?

Saving money and hiring an attorney are not necessarily mutually exclusive.  It’s possible both to hire an attorney and effectively manage your money so that you don’t spend more than you planned.
I think honesty is typically the best policy, and it also applies when you’ve hired an attorney to represent you in your divorce case.  Talk to your attorney about what you want out of your case, and also about what kind of budget you have.  Talk to him (or her) about your financial concerns and what, in his (or her) opinion you can do to make sure that you save as much money as possible on your case.  Your attorney may have his or her own suggestions, and I have a couple of my own, too.

1.    Use email.

Email isn’t any cheaper than a phone call, but the best thing about it is that, after the email is over, you can keep it.  Unlike a phone conversation, when you hang up the phone, it’s over—and it’s difficult to review it later on.
A lot of times I find that my clients ask the same questions more than once.  Not because they’re dumb (in fact, they’re really smart and savvy), but because they’re under a lot of stress.  They ask a question and they remember that I made them feel better, but they don’t always remember what the answer to that question was.  There’s a lot to remember in a divorce or custody case, and it can be hard when you’re under stress to take notes the way you might wish.
With an email, you have a written record that you can refer to over and over again.  If you don’t understand something, it’s all there in black and white, and you know you didn’t misunderstand, so you can ask follow up questions.

2.    Set a phone appointment with your attorney (and bring a list of questions).

If you prefer to talk to your attorney on the phone, that’s fine, too.  But you’ll get the best advice possible if you schedule a phone appointment ahead of time.  Family law attorneys are all over the place.  We’re notorious for it!  We’ve got new clients coming in to meet with us, and we’ve also got to meet with our old clients—for court dates, settlement conferences, mediations and collaborative meetings, and more.  It’s almost never ending!  When we’re in the office, we’re working on cases—drafting separation agreements, final decrees, orders, motions, petitions, and all sorts of other things—to make sure our clients cases continue to move forward as swiftly, smoothly, and efficiently as possible.
We want to talk to you about your case, and we want to be sure that we’re giving you our undivided attention.  That can be hard to do if you call in randomly, whenever a question strikes.
Of course, our door (and are phone lines) are always open, and you shouldn’t hesitate to call.  I’m not here to tell you all the reasons we can’t be bothered; quite the opposite, actually.  Making sure you’re happy (and have all your questions answered) is so incredibly important to us that we want to make sure we answer your questions completely.  To do that, it helps if you schedule a phone appointment.  Want to be even kinder to us?  Email us with an agenda of what you want to cover during your call.  That way, we’re prepared.  We know when the call is going to happen, and we know what you want to discuss.  We can review your file, do any necessary research, and give you our undivided attention.  (That’s difficult to do when we’re working on another case when you call!)
It saves you money, because we’re at our most efficient.  We don’t have to call you back later after we’ve had a chance to research, and our minds aren’t fuzzy because we’re coming from working on another case.  Your time is yours, and we’re prepared.
Save your questions up, too.  We bill in tenth of an hour increments of time, so one question can sometimes be as expensive as two or three (of course, it all depends on the level of complexity involved).  If you save your questions up, it will be much less expensive than if you called up every time a question popped into your head.  (Which, like I said, you are certainly more than welcome to do, if that makes you feel better, if there’s been an emergency, or if you just can’t wait.)

3.    Be organized.

Organization is probably one of the most important factors when it comes to saving money on your case.  I absolutely love organized clients.
As you can probably imagine, divorce is fairly complicated.  There are a lot of things to divide, even in the “easier” cases.  There are a lot of bank accounts and loans and mortgages and personal property, and I have to be able to figure out what’s there, determine what it’s worth, and divide it between the two of you.  I don’t just automatically know what’s there—you’ll have to help me find it and make sense of it all.
It doesn’t help to have a pile of documents basically just dumped on my desk.  I can’t tell you how often this happens!  If you provide your information in an unorganized heap, you’re going to have to pay someone to go through and make sense of it all.  That’s not ideal.
If, on the other hand, you provide all your documents in a carefully organized fashion, we can much more quickly and easily make sense of it.  We can tell what’s there and what’s not, and we can understand what’s there to be divided.  Just being a little bit organized can save you literally thousands of dollars.
Just because I do things a certain way doesn’t mean you have to, either.  You can organize your stuff however you want, just so long as you have a system that I can understand.  It doesn’t matter whether you arrange things in reverse chronological order, so that the most up-to-date stuff is first, or if you prefer to organize it so that the first things are presented first.  However you want—the sky’s the limit here—just so long as what you provide is organized.

4.    Work closely with your paralegal.

In a law firm, like I’ve already touched on a little bit, we bill by the hour.  We all do—from the attorneys and the paralegals to the secretaries.  Almost everyone has an hourly rate, and those hourly rates are all different based on everyone’s relative levels of experience and expertise.
Attorneys, obviously, bill at a higher rate than paralegals, who generally bill at a higher hourly rate than secretaries.  The more you use your paralegal or secretary, the less money it costs you.
Of course, you should feel free to contact your attorney directly, whenever you need to.  I don’t say this to make you feel like you can’t access your attorney whenever you need or want to, because you certainly can.  I only want you to be aware of the different costs associated with each member of the firm, so that you can make the best financial decisions possible.  If you don’t need to talk to the attorney to get your question answered—save money, and don’t!  Talk to the paralegal or secretary first, if possible, and you’ll save money.
Your divorce or custody case doesn’t have to break the bank.  The more cautious you are, the more money you can save.  Start by having a frank discussion with your attorney about your financial picture so that you can make the best decisions possible.  For more information, to talk about costs, or to schedule an appointment with one of our attorneys, give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.

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