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Understanding Attorney's Fees
If you are new to the legal system, understanding attorney’s fees in a divorce case can be complex. We have attempted to demystify the process with our article below, but please keep in mind that every attorney and every case is different. Prior to engaging any attorney to handle your divorce matter, discuss with them in detail their retainer requirements, fee structure, billing method and methods of payment accepted. Feel free to ask any questions necessary to ensure you have a clear understanding of your attorney’s fees.
Below are brief explanations of items you should understand prior to hiring your attorney.
Most attorneys require potential clients to pay an initial retainer fee before the attorney will begin work on the case. It is important to understand law firms vary in how they handle retainers, so be sure to understand the following items in regard to your retainer:
- Unless stated otherwise in the retainer agreement, a retainer is NOT the total amount of legal fees you may expect in a case, but instead it is a fee that must be paid to start representation. The actual fees incurred can be higher or lower than the retainer amount.
- Is the retainer held in escrow throughout my case or are hourly fees and/or costs assessed against it as the case progresses?
- Some firms will hold your retainer in an escrow account throughout the entire case. In these instances, you will have ongoing bills that must be paid during the pendency of your case despite the fact you have a retainer on hold with that law firm. In this respect, the retainer is like a security deposit to ensure payment of future legal fees.
- Others will apply the retainer to fees and costs as they are incurred in a case and may require a replenishing retainer as the initial retainer is exhausted. In this respect, a retainer is an advance payment against which any hourly fees and/or costs are assessed.
- Some divorce law firms maintain that part (or the entire amount) of your retainer is non-refundable, so make sure you understand what happens if there is any "left over" retainer in your case.
Written Retainer Agreements
Once you decide to hire an attorney, your attorney must provide you with a written retainer agreement identifying the costs and hourly fees that apply to your case. It is important you read this document carefully and ask questions regarding any unclear issues. Signing a retainer agreement does not mean that you cannot fire your lawyer or that your lawyer cannot withdraw from the case. You have the right to change lawyers at any time. The retainer agreement, however, will memorialize the terms of your billing relationship with the attorney. Once you have signed the retainer agreement, it is a legally binding and enforceable contract, so always keep a copy of your retainer agreement for later reference.
In Georgia, there are some attorneys who charge fixed flat fees for uncontested divorces. In addition, some attorneys are now charging a flat rate for certain services performed on a case – such as a flat rate of $x for drafting a complaint. Many clients prefer this model because it allows them to know the total cost of the proceeding at the outset of the matter and budget accordingly. Just be careful and understand what happens to your fees should the matter no longer remain “uncontested,” or should you need services outside of those covered in the flat rate.
Although some attorneys offer flat fee structures for contested divorce matters, most attorneys will bill out their time at an hourly rate. An attorney’s hourly rate is influenced by his or her legal experience, reputation, and demand for his or her services. Regardless, you should understand and pay attention not only to the rate charged by your attorney, but also any associate attorneys, paralegals, or legal staff who handle your case since a lot of work on your case can be handled by these individuals, usually at a dramatically lower rate.