You have decided it would be best to be represented by an attorney in your family law matter. Congratulations, you have made a smart move! Still, if you are like most people, you worry about what the total cost will be and whether it will bankrupt you.
If your attorney charges an hourly rate, as most do, the final cost, or “bottom line,” is something neither your attorney nor anyone else can predict exactly. The main predictor of total cost is how amicable you and your spouse (or the other parent or other party) are and can remain throughout the proceeding, which will take months and possibly up to a year or more. There are other factors beyond your control, such as whether the opposing party is represented and how aggressive the other attorney chooses to be.
A divorce, child custody establishment, or any other family law case is usually a marathon race rather than a sprint. Because of this, many people start strong and then begin flagging when their energy and financial resources are needed most: for the trial or other evidentiary hearing. You do not want to be in that position. If you honestly do not think you will have enough funds to last the entire case, you may want to make the hard choice of representing yourself in the beginning—perhaps with the advice of an attorney behind the scenes—and then have the attorney submit his or her notice of appearance to the court a few weeks before trial.
Another way to stretch your dollars is to do as much of the legwork yourself as possible. This means playing your own private detective: finding or obtaining copies of records, sorting through emails, texts, pictures, financial documents, and the like. Then send your attorney the relevant items in chronological or subject-matter order, perhaps labeled with numbers and short descriptions or explanations of what topics are covered and their relevance.
Most helpful in the document collection process is providing the documents to the attorney in an electronic format. Buying a basic flatbed scanner might be the best investment you will ever make because it could save you hundreds or even thousands of dollars in attorney’s fees over the life of a divorce or child custody case. It will enable your attorney to focus on more important tasks in your case, such as legal research and writing, rather than spending expensive billable hours copying and scanning hard-copy documents at the law firm’s normal hourly rate, even if a paralegal or legal secretary does the work at a somewhat lower rate.
Another way to help increase your lawyer’s efficiency is offering to help prepare for hearings by:
- Putting together summaries of key facts or arguments, timelines, and/or financial spreadsheets.
- Finding important documents that could be used as exhibits.
- Identifying people who you think could testify positively on your (and your children’s) behalf.
- Talking with potential witnesses and asking whether they would be willing to testify for you (even if they are not, they can be forced to testify through a subpoena).
- Giving the attorney the potential witnesses’ full names, addresses, phone numbers, email addresses, and relationships to you.
Be sure to ask your attorney before embarking on any such tasks to ensure that they will be helpful and to avoid duplication of effort.
An important way to keep your costs down is to be immediately responsive to your attorney when he or she asks for your help. Monitor your email frequently (at least daily, if not hourly, when there is a big deadline looming). Be prepared to make yourself available on a moment’s notice to get a document notarized or signed. Respond to all your attorney’s information requests promptly and completely. If you are unsure why you are being asked for certain information, by all means ask, but do not ignore the request. Of course, your attorney owes you the same duty to be responsive. If that is not happening, talk with him or her about it right away.
Finally, avoid the natural temptation to over-communicate with your attorney. You may be angry with the other party, but make sure all your communications ask relevant questions or provide information that truly is necessary for the case. It is important to have a friend, relative, counselor, or member of the clergy with whom to vent your frustrations and discuss your feelings. But it is also important that your attorney focus on the legal issues because that is what you are paying him or her to do.
If possible, group your emails into no more than one per day. Do not call or text your attorney unless the matter is urgent. If you are price conscious, a good rule of thumb is to use your attorney as much as needed but no more.
A good attorney is worth his or her weight in gold. Nevertheless, legal proceedings can be very expensive. If you can help your attorney be effective and efficient in advocating for you and your family, you will save a bundle of money as you work together to reach the best possible outcome.
Disclaimer: This legal guide provides general information, not legal advice that can be applied to any specific matter. It does not establish an attorney-client relationship.