If you want to know how much your divorce case will cost, the real question is how much time you think this matter will take (multiplied by the attorney’s hourly rate). Knowing that the critical question is how much time will my case take, let’s look at some of the factors that influence your attorney’s fees in a matter so you can better understand where your money will be spent and how to best minimize your costs.
When people think of attorney’s fees, the most common (and obvious) one that comes to people’s mind is court costs. Typically attorneys charge both for their time waiting to be heard and the actual hearing itself. The thought process is that waiting time is charged because, but for that court appearance, the attorney would not be there (and likely would be working on something else). The amount of time spent in court in a case varies greatly and depends largely on the number of court appearances required. If the case does not resolve itself and is forced to go to trial, you can anticipate that there will at least be time spent on the final trial. Depending on the county and case, however, it is also possible that you will also have a temporary hearing in a matter, status conference with the judge, and possibly one (or more) motions hearings to resolve everything from discovery disputes to what evidence will be allowed at trial.
While you obviously can see the time spent at court, a lot of the time spent by an attorney in your case will not be “in court” time. Instead, it is likely that the majority of the time will be spent out of court on one or more of the following items:
- Communications with you, the client – An attorney’s first role in a case is to listen to the client, gather the relevant facts, explain how the lawyer perceives the relevant facts and provide advice for how the client should proceed forward in the case. When reviewing bills between numerous clients, one of the largest variance that we will see on similar cases is the time actually spent on this item. As such, to the extent that you can cut down or reduce this time, you can often lower your overall costs in a case. That said, the very reason you should be seeking an attorney in the first place is to take advantage of their experience and knowledge in a matter so finding the proper balance in a case is critical to effective use of your attorney’s fees in a matter. Talk with your attorney to discuss the most cost effective way of communicating in your situation.
- Conversations with opposing attorneys (or parties if they are unrepresented) – In order to resolve a dispute, it is important for both sides to listen to each and other attempt to find common ground and reasonable compromises in order to negotiate a deal. This process cannot happen if people are not communicating. As such, depending upon the case, a substantial amount of time can be spent just attempting to resolve a dispute informally (or just resolving various disputes about the litigation itself). Even if the efforts don’t pay off immediately, they often help lead parties to an amicable resolution. So, despite the costs involved, it is often money well spent.
- Mediation – While the concept of mediation is discussed in greater detail in other articles, as far as time spent in a matter, you should usually add in the cost of mediation. While a number of cases can resolve without going through that process, it is more than likely in a contested matter that at some point the parties will hit a road block. When they do, attorneys often turn to mediation to see if they can work out the matter. On the plus side, if mediation is successful, the investment spent here can (and usually is) the best expenditure of money in a case. On the con side, if the mediation is unsuccessful in resolving at least some of the issues, then you have added additional attorney’s fees to your overall bill (plus the mediator’s fees for the session). Everything weighed out, however, in most cases time spent here is in your best interest and well worth the investment.
- Discovery – Surprisingly, it is likely that you will find the majority of the time spent by your attorney in your case on discovery - either crafting and sending the appropriate discovery to the opposing party, conducting informal discovery, or just trying to get a handle on the overall situation and facts related to a case. It takes a lot of time to gather years of information, review tons of financial statements looking for relevant facts, and prepare for trial. This process all starts with discovery. It is also an item that you do not want to overlook. Missing an account to divide, not understanding the numbers or particulars of a pension, or just not understanding the facts that are helpful (and harmful) in a case can make all the difference in your case's ultimate outcome. Fortunately, this area is one that astute clients can use to really save money on their legal fees. Preparing the group of documents that need to be produced, making copies for your attorney, etc. all help to lower the time your attorney spends on discovery (and ultimately lower your costs in a divorce).
- Motions – Although motions practice is somewhat tame in family law compared to other areas of the law, it is worth noting that there often comes a time where a particular motion is needed. Sometimes it is a motion to compel discovery that is not being turned over, other times it is to have certain protected information excluded from trial. Regardless of the reason, filing motions with briefs attached are an integral, and sometime foundational, part of your case.
- Preparing for hearings and a final trial – Attorneys do not just come up with all of their arguments on the fly. For some, spending 2 hours (or more) in preparation for every 1 hour spent in trial is not uncommon. When reviewing all of the costs related to a case, it is important to consider a budget for preparation time, and not just the time of the trial (or hearing) itself.