Asking a person how much he or she earns for a living is a question that most people feel uncomfortable asking. We’re taught at any early age to not ask certain questions about other people: religion, politics, and money are foremost among them. Most people would hesitate before coming up to someone on the street and asking him or her how much money they earn.
However, I think it’s pretty common for people to wonder how much money attorneys earn in any given year. Lawyers are one of those occupations where so much attention is paid to them in the media, television and movies that everyone seems to develop an opinion about attorneys and how much money we ought to earn. That’s fair, but what people think and what the reality of the situation is can be very different.
With all of that said, I wanted to talk with you about how much an attorney earns. More specifically, I would like to share with you some information about how attorneys bill their clients, how much your divorce could stand to cost you as well as the degree to which the type of divorce your case is could impact the overall cost of your case.
Asking questions is a good thing when it comes to divorce
You ought to be asking questions, a lot of questions, when you are in the early stages of a divorce. Preferably you should start asking questions about the process before your divorce even begins. Every one of us lives on a budget and that budget will determine whether or not you are able to hire an attorney for your divorce. The next question you need to ask yourself once you determine that you can afford an attorney is what attorney in your area should you hire to represent you.
The bottom-line cost of a divorce may be what you want to know more than anything else about your case. For some people who don’t have kids and don’t have much property to divide, it is reasonable to be most concerned with the cost of the divorce. Odds are good that the attorney you hire to represent you at the beginning of your divorce will also be the attorney who represents you throughout your case. Very rarely do clients fire attorneys and hire new ones, or have their attorneys release the case of a client.
Another question you should an attorney that you are meeting with is whether or not you need to hire an attorney for the full length of your case. In many situations you may not even need to hire a lawyer to represent you. This could happen in situations where your case is not complicated or not being contested. What may end up working out better for you from a financial perspective is having an attorney available to consult with at various stages of your case. The attorney would be able to give you advice about drafting documents, negotiations with your spouse and other areas that come up along the way.
In the alternative, you should ask the attorney that you are meeting with to determine whether or not it would be more appropriate for you to hire a lawyer to help you draft your final decree of divorce. This sort of attorney-client relationship would make sense if you and your spouse have already settled on the terms of your divorce and are now just in need of drafting orders to put those agreements into writing. The importance of a final decree of divorce cannot be overstated. Without an order with clear and concise language the judge cannot enforce the orders in the future if you or your spouse violate an order. If the orders cannot be enforced then they are worth the paper that they are printed on.
How does a divorce attorney charge their clients?
Divorce attorneys bill clients by the hour. This means that your attorney will have an hourly rate that he or she charges you based on the time spent working on your case. Our law office charges clients by the quarter-hour, meaning that for every fifteen minutes of work you will be charged a fee based on the employee in our office who did the work on your case. Attorneys bill at certain rates, paralegals, legal assistants and support staff also bill at various rates.
You may be familiar with how personal injury attorneys bill clients. These type of attorneys work on a contingency fee basis meaning that they will not charge you any money up front in order to have them represent you in your case. However, if you win a settlement of a verdict in court, a percentage of the money from the insurance company will be paid to the attorney to satisfy his or her fee.
Family law attorneys do not bill clients in this way, however. Since there are upfront costs associated with a divorce we need to make sure that there is money available in your client trust account to ensure that work can be done in your case. Additionally, there is no payout of money from an insurance company at the end of a family law case. As a result, a retainer fee, monthly payment structure is what you are much more likely to encounter in your divorce case.
Another reason why family law attorneys do not charge a flat fee or contingency fee on their cases is because your case is unique. In personal injury cases the path that a case takes- injury, medical treatment, submitting a demand, negotiation with an insurance company and then a trial, is pretty much set before your case begins. Family law cases, and divorces in particular, can go in a number of different directions based on the circumstances of your case. For that reason, an up-front payment along with monthly payments makes more sense for you as a client as well as for the attorney.
But what about your neighbor’s divorce who looks a lot like yours?
I have heard this comment from folks sitting in your shoes: why should your divorce cost so much more than a friend or neighbor’s whose situation looks a whole lot like yours does? You both are stay at home moms with two kids, a mortgage and a moderate amount of savings/debt. Why did her case wrap up in two months while yours is dragging into a fourth or fifth month? Is the reason why because the attorney wants to drag the case out in order to increase attorney’s fees?
The circumstances of your case are never identical to another couple’s divorce even if things appear to be that way on the outside looking in. For instance, while your friend may appear to earn a similar income to you it may not be as clear that she has no assets of any value while you and your spouse own some land, a significant amount of retirement income and have a special needs child. All of these are issues that take longer to sort through than the “typical” divorce in Texas.
Another factor that you need to consider is how contentious your divorce is. Do you and your spouse have a lot of animosity towards one another? Have you been emotionally harmed due to an act of infidelity- physical or financial? If this is the case then you are more likely to find yourself in a knock down, drag out fight as opposed to your friend. If you and your spouse both want to become the primary conservator of your children (to have your children live with you) then this will almost guarantee a longer and more expensive divorce.
On the other hand, you may find that your divorce is shorter and “easier” than your friend’s divorce because you and your spouse have made it a point to work together in an attempt to meet in the middle on the important issues of your case. I have been involved in representing clients who have come into the attorney-client relationship with a run-down of what the client and their spouse want to have in their final decree of divorce. All these folks really have to do is attend mediation, draft a final decree of divorce and then wait for the requisite waiting time of 60 days to pass.
The bottom line is that I would caution you before you begin to compare your case to every friend and family member you know who has gone through a divorce. Comparisons in most any area of your life will not bring you much of any benefit. You’ll either feel frustrated because your divorce is taking longer to complete than you think it should or you will get no real benefit from continually reminding yourself that you are better off than a friend whose divorce took longer than yours. You are better off focusing on your children and on yourself rather than on others during a divorce.
Contested issues and the length of your case will determine how much your case costs
There are many issues at stake in even a common, everyday divorce case. Spousal maintenance, child support, child custody, division of your community estate and many others are all involved in a divorce case. If you and your spouse are in disagreement on any of these issues then your divorce will take longer and cost more money. Attorneys, contrary to popular belief, do not attempt to create controversy and disharmony in order to charge more to clients. Attorneys are just like you- very busy. We would prefer to have a simple, uncontentious divorce because it’s what is best for you, your family and our schedules.
For the most part, if you and your spouse can work together to solve the majority of the issues in your case then I believe that your retainer would go pretty far- possibly even towards the very end of your case. The more your attorney has to get on the phone to call the opposing attorney the more your divorce is going to cost. That’s not a function of your attorney driving up case costs. It’s a function of you and your spouse not being able to play nice in the sandbox.
How to cut into how much money your attorney earns
If you really want to know how to cut into how much money your attorney earns I have a few ideas for you. Number one, learn how to be efficient in your communication with your lawyer. If you call the attorney ten times a day to communicate things that could have been said in one phone call, I’ve got news for you: you are being charged 15 minutes apiece for the phone calls. Your attorney is taking time away from other issues and other clients to speak to you. Start to become more intentional with how you communicate with your lawyer. If possible, communicate more with their support staff than with your attorney on minor issues.
Finally, you should begin to bury the hatchet with your spouse as early as possible. Yes, I understand that sometimes your spouse has done things to you that make this very hard to do. If there has been physical violence or harm done to your kids I am not asking you to forgive your spouse. However, I am saying that to press hard on issues that are not important to you just to prove a point is silly in the context of an expensive divorce. Stand up for your rights but keep things in proper perspective.
Questions about attorney fees and costs? Contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. If you have any questions about the costs associated with divorce cases in Texas please do not hesitate to contact the Law Office of Bryan Fagan. Our licensed family law attorneys offer free of charge consultations six days a week here in our office. These consultations are a great opportunity to learn more about our office and to have your questions answered by an experienced family law attorney.