is wrought with cost. The emotional cost of a failed relationship. The
cost to children living in a two home family. The cost of maintaining
two households. Then, of course, there is the cost of a lawyer. At hundreds
of dollars per hour, legal fees in a divorce can easily be in the tens
of thousands of dollars. The fact of the matter is that competent legal
representation is expensive. That does not mean that you can’t help
yourself to save money on attorney’s fees and costs associated with
divorce. Here are ten tips that can help.
1. Always remember that time is money.
First you must understand how lawyers bill. Most of us are comfortable
with the idea of a fixed fee. We see an item on the menu, with a price
right next to it. Fixed, and straight forward. Legal billing is different.
As Abraham Lincoln explained it, "a lawyer’s time and advice
are his stock in trade." In other words, lawyers bill for their time.
The more time the lawyer invests in your case, the higher the legal fees
will be. With this basic understanding you will be better able to comprehend
and manage legal fees.
2. Understand when your lawyer is on the clock.
Time is the commodity. If you are unclear, don’t be afraid to ask
your lawyer what he does charge for, and what he does not charge for.
People don’t always know that time on the telephone can be charged.
Sometimes lawyers charge for any time spent dealing with the case -- including
you taking your lawyer out to lunch. Get clarification so that you don’t
unknowingly request services that you will be billed for. Also be prudent
in your purchase of legal services. The more of your lawyer’s time
that you use, the more you are going to pay. Appreciate that your lawyer
needs to be kept apprised of significant events in your life. However,
you do not have to swamp him with minutiae. Making sure your lawyer has
knowledge of every hour in your days is not necessary.
3. Use your time with your lawyer wisely.
Most lawyers bill in incremental time. The concept is not unique. Most
service professionals (doctors, dentists, accountants) base their efforts,
and prices, on measured units of time. In the case of lawyers those units
are typically blocks of minutes. For instance, many lawyers will be in
six minute increments. As soon as the work starts, you are charged every
six minutes. As an example, at $200 per hour, one six minute increment
has a value/cost to you of $20. If you have a two minute conversation
with your lawyer, that is one six minute increment, or $20 in fees. If
you have a seven minute conversation, that is two six minute increments,
or $40 in fees. To realize maximum efficiency under this system plan ahead
before meeting with or talking to your lawyer. Save your questions for
one conversation, rather than calling up your lawyer every time you have
something on your mind. Four two minute conversations equals $80 in legal
fees. One eight minute conversation equals $40 in legal fees.
4. Your lawyer is your legal representative, not your psychologist.
Divorce is stressful. You want someone with whom you can
talk through your emotional issues. Your lawyer is not that person. Lawyers
are trained in legal problem solving, not mental health. Therapists, psychologists,
psychiatrists, and other mental health professionals are better trained
and equipped to help you resolve your emotional issues. Most likely there
services will also be less expensive.
5. The more work you do for you lawyer, the less work your lawyer
will have to do for you.
Lawyers require information. The lawyer’s first, best, most obvious
source of information is her client. Skilled divorce lawyers have tools
in place to help them gather the information that they must have. Questionnaires,
checklists, etc., are all common information gathering devices. If your
divorce lawyer utilizes any of these tools, it is a wonderful opportunity
for you to save money. Invest the time and energy to complete the homework
your lawyer gives you. If you don’t, your lawyer will have to invest
the time (hence your money) to gather the information elsewhere. Along
the same lines, educate yourself. The more information you have in your
own mind about your family expenses, assets, obligations, etc., the faster
and easier it will be for you to explain your situation to your lawyer.
6. Be your own legal assistant
Information is a recurring theme in divorce. As we have explained, your
own lawyer requires information to adequately represent you. Another frequent
component of divorce is sharing of that information with the other side.
In fact, California, where I practice, imposes a significant information
disclosure obligation on the spouse who files for divorce. Copies of bank
statements, vehicle title certificates, investment account statements,
loan documents, credit card statements, pay stubs, tax returns all have
to be delivered to the adverse party. If you can provide these records
to your attorney, he will not have to take the time to get them for you.
Another cost saving measure to keep in mind is photocopying. Copy machines
are an overhead item for lawyers, that is passed through to the client.
The cost of photocopying in a law office can frequently run ten, twenty,
fifty cents per page. For large volume copying jobs a cheaper alternative
is the commercial copy shop. Ask your lawyer if you can take the originals
down to the copy shop, and doing or pay for the copying yourself. You
will save on per page charges, and the time charges. It is not unheard
of for clients to also act as "runners" for the lawyer. Filing
documents at the courthouse, delivering documents to the other attorney,
can all be cheaper alternatives to attorneys, legal assistants, or couriers
doing the work.
7. Get smart, not mad.
At some earlier point in time you and your spouse exercised the privilege
of being adults by marrying the other; and you each committed yourselves
to the responsibilities that go along with marriage. Don't think that
just because the marriage is ending, the responsibilities of being an
adult are abolished. Each spouse voluntarily entered into the marriage,
now each spouse must deal with its consequences. In the final analysis,
if there are any problems that manifest themselves during the divorce,
their ultimate cause can be pinpointed exactly - that being the point
in time when the spouses got married. Look at your divorce as a business
transaction. You are after the best economic result. It makes no sense
to pay a lawyer a $1000 to get you something worth $100.
The frame of mind of the spouses in a marital dissolution action can often
be the most significant component of the entire case. If one or both persons
bear(s) resentment or hostility to the other, any potential for efficiency
that the case may have becomes vulnerable. While the attorney can put
forth a valiant effort to maintain control of the case, the effort usually
succumbs to the client's hostility. From this comes two certainties: first,
the action is going to take longer to conclude; second, attorney's fees
are going to skyrocket, because more attorney time will be necessary.
8. Compromise, compromise, compromise.
There is a saying in divorce law with respect to the husband and wife:
"No one wins. It’s more a question of how well the mutual loss
in controlled." Another way of putting it is, "how much money
can I stop my lawyer from making?" Regardless of where you live,
the divorce system is driven by equity. In other words, the court is going
to try and realize fairness. Understanding that this middle of the road
approach controls, it makes sense that you help yourself get to the middle
of the road. Be flexible, be creative, be compromising. Work toward settlement,
rather than entrenchment. The more amicable the conduct between the spouses,
the more likely the matter can be resolved quickly. The less time the
lawyer spends on the case, the less time the lawyer bills for. By law
the spouses must deal fairly and in good faith with each other. It is
much easier, and cheaper, to follow the law and bring the matter to a
swift conclusion, then it is to pursue some unreasonable objective (i.e.,
vindication against the other spouse, attempting to come out of the matter
better than the other spouse by hiding assets, etc.). The rules exist
for a reason. Play by them!
9. Consider alternatives to litigation
To get divorced you have to go through the legal system. However, the
last place you want to find yourself during your divorce is in the courthouse.
Court appearances, hearings, and trials all take an inordinate amount
of time. And as we know, time is money. It’s not uncommon to have
to pay a lawyer for four hours of sitting and waiting in the courtroom,
just so that she can speak to the judge for ten minutes. Fortunately,
there are alternatives. Divorce mediation is a very effective procedure
for realizing a settlement and completing your divorce. The parties meet
with a neutral attorney who renders advice, gives guidance, facilitates
a settlement, and processes the paperwork with the court. Typically mediation
is cheaper than litigation. Another alternative is Collaborative divorce.
This is a process whereby the spouses and their lawyers contract to keep
the case out of court. Before resorting to war, consider if your circumstances
will allow resort to one of these alternative methods of resolution?
10. Ask yourself if you even need a lawyer?
An acquaintance approached me the other day with the bad news that he
and his wife were breaking up. He was bewildered at what to do next. I
asked him where things stood between him and his wife. He explained that
neither was mad at the other, but that they had simply grown apart, and
had come to the realization that there lives would be better apart, rather
than together. They had even been able to sit down at the kitchen table
and resolve all of their issues. Property division, child custody, support.
They had put it all down on paper. Now they wanted to make it all right
with the courts. Then he asked if I could help? I told him I could, but
that I was probably not his best option. I explained that if he was not
interested in getting legal advice along with his court proscribed paperwork,
that he should consider preparing the court documents himself, or with
the help of a divorce paralegal. There are an abundance of self help legal
guide books that provide more than enough information for many people
to do their own divorce. And paralegals are a viable, affordable option
for those people who do not want to, or cannot prepare their own legal
papers. Just remember, it is against the law for anyone other than a licensed
lawyer to give legal advice.
Divorce is expensive. No doubt about it. However, that does not mean that
the expense is uncontrollable. With foresight, organization, effort, and
practicality it is possible to reduce the legal costs associated with
John E. Harding, J.D. is a lawyer with Harding & Associates in Pleasanton
and San Francisco, California. His practice emphasizes all areas of California
family law including divorce; separation; child custody, visitation, and
support; spousal support, property division; and divorce mediation. He
can be reached by telephone at 1-800-417-9220 ext. 202, or by e-mail at
The Harding &
Associates website is located at
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Related Outside Very Helpful Links:
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Legal Divorce Research Information
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