Before you even start reading, let me give you the moral of the story: Look closely, very closely, at how a lawyer will bill you before you hire them.
People ask me all the time, “How much will my divorce cost?”
If I had a crystal ball, I would answer that question every time someone walks into my office. While I may be a lawyer, I am also human, and I understand how difficult it is to budget for something when you don’t actually know how much it will cost.
Unfortunately, there is no way to tell how much a case will cost in family court because it really does depend. In most cases, attorneys bill on an hourly rate, so the total expense is largely determined by how much time your lawyers spends on your case.
While you may not be able to control the total expense, you can make sure you are informed about what exactly your lawyer will bill you for. There are certain things you can expect to pay your lawyer for, and some common pitfalls to avoid when choosing a lawyer to represent you.
In my opinion, based on industry standard, business policy, and general fairness, here is what you should expect to pay your lawyer for, and how you can minimize the unnecessary components of those expenses:
- Court Time. This one is, hopefully, the most obvious. You can expect to pay your lawyer for any time spent in court on your case. This generally includes any time you spend sitting and waiting for your case to be called. You can make the best use of this time by using it to talk with your lawyer about case strategy and future plans. As a lawyer, I would much rather spend that waiting time talking to you about your questions and concerns rather than billing you to just sit around waiting.
- Emails and Phone Calls. While it may seem trivial at times, phone calls and emails take up a large chunk of your lawyer’s time. This can be unnerving for people because you quite literally have no control over how often other people will call or email me regarding your case, especially the opposing party or opposing counsel. When hiring a lawyer, ask them how they handle billing for emails and phone calls. Do they log every single contact and charge a minimum for it, or do they go by actual time spent? You can minimize these fees by making sure that you are not the one ringing up the bill. Consolidate your questions and ask them clearly when possible. Also, while it may be tempting, try not to ramble on and on to your lawyer. I absolutely want to understand your feelings, but I cannot help you process things like a therapist.
- Research. Family law in Missouri is not very heavy on legal research. Most issues are determined by statute and have been cemented in the law for quite some time. That being said, families are constantly evolving. If your case involves an area of the law that is still arguable, then legal research may be required to understand what the law actually is. It may also involve motions, hearings, and arguments to determine how the law applies to your case. Before paying your lawyer to do extensive legal research, look closely at what the issue is and how it actually related to your case. What will the likely outcome be? Even if the law is in your favor, how much will it impact the actual outcome of your case? I once had a case where the opposing party paid his lawyer what I am sure was several hundred dollars to do research and draft a brief on an issue that my client was in complete agreement with. If opposing counsel had asked me in advance, he probably could have avoided doing all that work, and charging his client all that money.
- Drafting Documents. Paperwork is inevitable for lawyers. A case lives and breathes on the different pleadings that are filed with the court. You can expect to pay your lawyer to draft documents. To keep this under control, make sure you provide information to your lawyer in an organized and manageable way – fill out the forms they ask you for, organize your documents in advance, and offer to do as much of the paperwork as possible on your own. It can sometimes take me twice as long to draft a brief using piles of notes from clients than it would using a more organized system, like The Parenting Planner.
There are also some things that are perfectly ethical to charge for, but that tend to make a bill go up very quickly. Be very careful before hiring a lawyer who charges for any of the following, and make sure you understand exactly how you will be billed:
- Travel Time. It is perfectly reasonable for a lawyer to charge you for travel time to and from court, meetings, and other things related to your case. That being said, I consider it poor taste to bill a client the same rate for travel as I would for going to court or preparing case strategy. Look for a lawyer who bills a more standard mileage rate for travel, if they even bill for travel at all.
- Copying and Postage. If you need a huge copy or mailing project done, then you can absolutely expect to pay for it. If your lawyer is charging you for every single letter that goes out, then that may be excessive. Make sure you know in advance how you are going to be billed for paperwork. You can minimize these fees easily by finding a lawyer who operates an electronic and paperless practice.
- Meals. I have heard of lawyers passing on fees for meals to clients, especially if those meals are purchased during client meetings or breaks in court. While this may be legitimate, you should be careful of how this will increase your bill. By the time we get to this level of billing, I advise clients to be very careful about knowing where their money is going. If your lawyer does charge you for meals, then ask to meet in their office instead of out in public.
Remember one thing, if nothing else: The money you pay a lawyer is yours until they earn it. It is your right to know what your lawyer will charge you for and how their billing practices work. Getting answers to your questions up front will prevent you from being in a sticky position later.
Do you have questions about money and your family court case? Call The Lien Law Firm at 314-722-8557 for a no-cost consultation where you can have a frank, honest conversation with a lawyer about your case and your budget.