It’s hard not to comparison shop for just about anything you’re after. Most sites these days make it so easy, it’s hard not to compare Zappo’s to 6pm.com and Amazon. If you can compare prices for shoes so quickly and easily, it’s hard to imagine not harnessing that power when it comes to paying for bigger items—like your divorce.
Telling cost from one attorney to the next isn’t quite as easy as searching for a coupon code or plugging the item and style number of a particular dress or coat into the search bar at eBay. In some ways, comparing things has never been so easy, but for certain things, especially service based things, it’s a little bit more difficult to tell.
You’ve always heard people warn you that you get what you pay for—and, in many cases, that’s certainly true. But does it necessarily follow that you have to pay the highest price to get the best service? Does it make sense that, in order to have “the best”, you have to take out a second mortgage or raid your retirement accounts? And, aside from figuring out the total overall cost of a service (which, especially in the case of a divorce, is difficult to estimate from the beginning of the process), how can you compare the price of one versus the price of another? Are you looking at what it costs for an initial consultation? A retainer? The attorney’s hourly rate? The hourly rate of the paralegal, legal assistant, or secretary? There are so many variables.
How do you tell what divorce costs? And, beyond that, how do you compare the costs of one attorney versus the costs of another? How, too, do you tell the good attorneys from the bad to make an informed decision?
It’s not like buying diapers, where you can compare costs quickly and easily across multiple sites or even in store. But the need to be sure that you’re getting a good quality service at a competitive price is just as important (if not more so) when it comes to hiring an attorney. There’s a lot at stake, and the financial costs can be far reaching.
How much does a divorce cost?
It’s really hard, ahead of time, to estimate how much a divorce will cost. There are a lot of factors that affect overall cost, and many of those factors are unique to your particular case. In our first meeting, clients often ask us to estimate costs—but that’s before we even really have an opportunity to get that much of a feel for the cast. How difficult is your husband? Who has he hired to represent him, if anyone? Are you planning on moving forward with a fault based divorce, or are you going to head down the uncontested, no fault track? We ask those questions in an initial consultation, but sometimes cases take a different turn—for better or for worse—and it’s hard to know whether yours will be one of those.
Generally speaking, though, uncontested divorces are the cheapest. It’s generally cheaper to do it yourself or hire a mediator than it is to hire an attorney, but cost doesn’t necessarily correlate with the success of the outcome. If you want the best divorce, there are a lot of factors to weigh against each other.
You can also hire an attorney to help negotiate a separation agreement and, ultimately, get an uncontested, no fault divorce. Though this is probably going to be a more expensive option than either do it yourself divorce or mediation, it’s one of the more cost effective options. And, in general, these typically have some of the best outcomes—because they’re drafted by attorneys with knowledge of the law, and understanding of the rights and entitlements of their clients, with an eye to protecting their clients for years after they’re executed. Of course, the costs also vary pretty dramatically, but it’s probably safe to say that most of these uncontested, no fault divorces where an attorney is involved cost anywhere from $1,500 to $7,500, on average.
A collaborative divorce is also a means of getting an uncontested, no fault divorce, but the costs are significantly higher. But there is also an emphasis on teamwork and reaching a solution that is in the best interests of both parties—and there’s no question that has a significant value, particularly in a case where there are a lot of marital assets, there’s a family owned business, or the parents are particularly concerned with custody and visitation of the children.
When you litigate a divorce, on the other hand, the costs are even higher still. Because there are so many procedural steps involved—pendente lite hearings, pretrial conferences, briefs, settlement conferences, and, of course, the attorney time involved in preparing testimony, exhibits, witnesses, and memorandums for trial—the costs rise dramatically when you start talking about going to court. It’s really hard to estimate costs in these cases, especially because they range so dramatically, but the total costs usually range between $15,000 and $50,000—per person. Can it cost more? Yes. Is that a wide range? Yes! But there you go—it’s at least a sort of vague ballpark figure that can help you as you begin to make decisions.
How can you compare costs from attorney to attorney?
This is the real question. Because your case is as simple or as complicated as it’s going to get on it’s own, and the only things you can really control about that, at this point, are (1) how you react to your soon to be ex husband’s craziness, and (2) the attorney you hire.
I can’t help you with the first, but I’m here to talk to you a little bit about the second. There are a couple of different ways to think about costs from attorney to attorney, so you can begin to really rationally compare costs.
The Consultation Fee
Most family law attorneys charge an initial consultation fee. In our area, they range anywhere from about $100-350, and last anywhere from 15 minutes to a full hour, depending on the office. You should ask both about the cost and about the duration of the appointment, since both are relevant factors.
You’re probably used to hearing commercials for attorneys advertising free consultations. I don’t know any reputable family law attorneys in our area who don’t charge consultation fees. There may be some, just not any that I know of. The attorneys who don’t charge consultation fees, in general, are personal injury attorneys. There’s a pretty major difference there; family law attorneys work on retainers and bill hourly, while personal injury attorneys take cases on contingency fees.
A contingency fee is when an attorney takes a case with no money up front; instead of charging as work is done, the attorney takes a percentage of the total recovery. In the case of a personal injury case, it’s usually something like 30-40%.
Ethically, family law attorneys aren’t allowed to work on contingency fees. We can’t take a percentage of your total recovery afterwards; we would risk being disbarred. It’s just a different type of case, and a different type of law.
Can you compare attorneys based on their retainer fee? Maybe. I think, personally, I’d want more information than just the consultation fee.
The Retainer Fee
Most, if not all, family law attorneys work on retainers. A retainer is an amount of money that is paid up front in order for the attorney to take on a case. It goes into an escrow account with your name on it, and the money is yours and stays yours until the attorney does work on your case. Attorneys bill by the hour, according to their hourly rates.
I hear people compare attorneys based on retainer fees all the time. “Attorney so and so said my retainer would only be $1500, but Attorney this and that said $2500.”
Retainer fees aren’t a great way to compare attorneys, because a retainer fee is not a flat fee. It’s just an amount of money required up front to take your case. Your case can ultimately cost more or less, but the retainer fee isn’t even really an estimate about how much it could theoretically cost. When your retainer runs out, the attorney will ask that you replenish your account.
Though there’s no question that a lower retainer fee will make hiring a particular attorney easier or harder for you, it’s not a good barometer of overall cost.
Attorney and Paralegal Hourly Rates
The hourly rate of the attorney is where you can really begin to tell one attorney apart from another. Attorney hourly rates vary dramatically, depending on the overall experience of the attorney in question. In our area, family law attorneys charge hourly rates that range between $150-500 per hour—perhaps even more.
If you’re going to compare on cost, you’d be remiss if you didn’t consider the hourly rate of the attorney—and, likewise, the hourly rate of the team of professionals with whom he or she works. Ask how they work together, too. Are all meetings done as a team effort, or can you expect just the attorney—or just the paralegal—at some points? How is work shared between the team? These types of questions will give you a better idea of overall cost than determining what the retainer fee is.
Sometimes, too, we have people ask us whether we’ll credit the consultation fee against the retainer. This always confuses me, because it doesn’t actually mean you’re paying less. You still pay the retainer fee and also the consultation fee, it’s just that the amount of money you have in escrow is less. It doesn’t change the costs at all—-but, again, I guess in some small way it lowers the barrier to hiring an attorney.
What if I can’t afford what it costs to hire a divorce attorney?
There’s no magical voodoo I can do to make a divorce cost less. In fact, lots of the pieces of the puzzle that create additional costs are ones I have no control over at all.
For more information about pro bono resources for Virginia women, click here. There aren’t a ton of options out there, but I still wanted to be sure that we had information summarizing the resources, since this is a question we get all the time.
You can meet with attorneys and ask about the costs. The best way to compare attorneys is to figure out their hourly rates, and then work backwards from there. Still, if you don’t have the money, you don’t have the money.
Not all of our clients have the money, either. It’s not easy for everybody. Many of our clients max out their credit cards, ask for money from their parents, or take loans from friends. They find a way to afford what they think is necessary for their future; in exchange, we represent our clients with zeal, always keeping their best interests in mind, and always being careful custodians of the money with which they entrust us.
If you’re still worried about hiring an attorney—or how to choose one—request a free copy of our book, “The Woman’s Guide to Selecting an Outstanding Family Law Attorney.” Or just give our office a call at (757) 425-5200.