Managing your legal fees

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Whether you are a multimillionaire or a person living from paycheck to paycheck, managing your legal fees during a divorce is essential. Below is a list of measures you (as the client) should adopt to assure your fees are only for necessary legal services.

  • Understand the fee agreement – When you hire a lawyer or a law firm, you will be asked to sign a fee agreement. This important document explains specifically the responsibilities of the law firm and how you will be charged for those services. While most firms (and solo lawyers) will not change the agreement if asked, every good lawyer will be happy to explain any questions you have before you sign that contract. (Avoid any lawyer who will not explain it.) Be sure you read and understand the fee agreement
  • Divorce and other family law cases are billed by the hour – Every time the lawyer, or paralegal, or law clerk, works on your file you will be charged for the time that work takes. The first way to limit legal fees is to avoid adding unnecessary billable time by sending repeated emails, phoning often, or otherwise repeating yourself to your lawyer. If the firm or lawyer is not getting back to you in a reasonable amount of time—it’s time to find a new firm or lawyer. Remember, if you send ten emails on the same topic, you will be billed for every one of those emails.
  • Understand that law firms of quality do not want to overbill their clients – Firms employ paralegals and law clerks to do much of the paperwork, scheduling, and drafting on a family law case. The paralegals, law clerks, and less-experienced attorneys all bill at a lower rate than the most experienced lawyers in the firm.  When you are asked to work with staff or with a more junior attorney to get something done on your case . . . do it! There is no need to worry about whether your case is being handled properly because the lead lawyer on your case will review the final product. You have just benefited because you will not be paying lead lawyer hourly rates for work that is done better and cheaper by some other member of the firm.
  • If you want to talk to the lawyer in charge of your case, schedule a time and date for an appointment or phone call – Scheduling a phone call or appointment is the most efficient use of your time and your lawyer’s time. Once you secure the appointment/phone call, write notes about everything you want to discuss. Forgetting an issue and having to reach out a second time to the attorney will cost you more time and money. If there are specific documents you want the lawyer to review, or you have a legal question that needs answering, let the paralegal know in plenty of time so the lawyer will have your answer prepared before you talk. The more you accomplish in one meeting or call, the less lawyer time you will be paying for on your next bill.
  • Listen to your lawyer- If the lawyer in charge of your case recommends that something you want to do or present to the court will not get you the results you want, listen. Clients are emotionally involved in their family law cases and often insist that lawyers present information to the court which makes no difference to the legal outcome.  You hired your lawyer because you trust them to advise you through a difficult time. When they tell you an argument, a document, or a legal strategy is not worth the time and money it will cost you, accept the recommendation. 
  • Respond – In divorce and support cases a lot of financial information is exchanged between the two parties before the judge makes any decision.  You can save a lot of time (and remember, you are being charged by the hour) by responding quickly to any requests to provide information to the firm. Have all your financial documents organized and easy to find.
  • Law firms of quality will answer your questions about your bill and correct any error – Review your bills immediately when you receive them. If something doesn’t make sense or seems incorrect, call the law firm, and get it straightened out. Lawyers and firms should be transparent about why you were billed. They should also willingly correct (and credit you for) any error on the bill.  If your lawyer or law firm isn’t willing to talk to you about your bill, then run (don’t walk) to find a different lawyer and firm!

When managing your legal fees, understand that time really is money. Control over gratuitous charges is in your hands. Limit your fees by staying organized and only reaching out to your attorney when necessary. A divorce is stressful enough without the added strain of an exorbitant legal bill.

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Article by Helen Zajic
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