A lot of people going through a separation and divorce find themselves concerned about the expense of attorney’s fees. Additionally, for many people, attorney’s fees are an unexpected expense; it is not as if people save up for a divorce. To make matters worse, attorney’s fees can be difficult to understand.
For attorneys, especially family law attorneys, we want to give our client all the knowledge and support they need. In doing so, we are able to form a particularly unique bond. But, when you then have to turn around and have the difficult conversation regarding fees (especially if payments are late), or the client is unhappy with the fees incurred, it is the last thing we want to discuss.
Because this topic comes up on a frequent basis, let’s address some common misconceptions:
Myth #1 – I can’t afford an attorney
How do you know? Unlike many other professions, there is no directory with a consensus of every attorney’s fees, no insurance company you pay monthly (even big corporation plans don’t work exactly like you will expect), or no standard co-pay with every visit; however, there are options for everyone if you do the research. There are wonderful programs such as Legal Aid and private attorneys willing to do pro bono work – assisting individuals who are financially limited. Your county may even have a self-serve center that will allow you to complete the right court documents for your circumstances. Regardless of your financial situation, the most important thing is to know what your options are. If you hire a private attorney, do your homework and ask questions. There may be ways you can save on fees (i.e. redacting your own documents, providing extra copies of potential exhibits, and so on).
Myth #2- All attorneys are the same, so go for the least expensive.
You get what you pay for. There is no guarantee that if you pay top dollar, you will get the outcome you want, but if you don’t pay for a quality and qualified attorney, you may find yourself disappointed. No attorney can control the outcome, but they can and should control the work they put into a case. If someone is telling you they will do the work for thousands less than someone else, stop and think and then run the other direction. Remember the adage ‘if something sounds too good to be true, it probably is’? Really good attorneys, especially ones with years of experience, are compensated well because they have a proven system and core values that give them an advantage in many ways.
Myth #3- I will spend more on attorney’s fees than my case is worth.
How do you put a value on fighting for custody of your kids? Of providing the best environment for them as you transition to a two-household family? What if an attorney can save you a few hundred dollars per month on child support or spousal support? Over a period of years, that could make a huge difference – thousands of dollars. What if you get taken advantage of by the opposing party and don’t learn that until it is too late? It is not whether you can afford an attorney; it’s can you afford not to hire one.
Myth #4- The other side will have to pay back all of my fees.
While we routinely seek the reimbursement of attorney’s fees in cases when applicable, the decision to award them is solely within the discretion of the court. It is a subjective standard. Some judges love to award fees and others hate it. While there are certainly cases with strong facts to support an award of attorney’s fees, they are never a guarantee and even when awarded, it is typically late in the legal proceeding and never dollar for dollar. It is best to have a backup plan in place just in case.
Myth #5- I lost so the fees were a waste of money.
Unlike in other areas of law, “wins” in family law can sometimes feel likes losses. If your attorney gets you joint physical custody, is that a win? Or is it a loss because you wanted primary custody? If you get more than 50% of the marital estate, but receive less in alimony, is that a win? Or a loss? Sometimes attorneys and clients disagree on the outcome, but once the issue has been presented to the judge, both the attorney and client are out of control of the process. Win or lose, so long as you and your attorney showed up prepared and gave it the best, there is nothing more than can be done. If you don’t get the result you hoped, it is easy to regret the fees that were paid. So how do you avoid the higher fees? You could consider resolution by settling your case out of court. What is the cost? In terms of dollars spent, settling usually costs less, but it may come at a higher cost to concede than it is to fight because ultimately you will be forced to accept the opposing party’s terms in order to end the conflict.
Hiring the attorney that is the right fit for your family and who has your back is priceless. If you find yourself in a situation where you may need to hire an attorney, start exploring your options and saving now. Don’t skip the consultation process and if you can, do more than one. Get to know your prospective attorney, ask relevant questions like their experience level, familiarity with the local rules and judges in your respective county, and so on. If you educate yourself and go with your gut, attorney’s fees don’t have to be so scary!