We can't emphasize enough the importance of being vigilant about how and when you spend your hard-earned money on legal fees. Self-restraint is the order of the day. Here are some tips from the trenches of divorce. You may say, “I don't have the patience for all this detail,” but take it from us, you will save thousands of dollars if you follow these guidelines:
Hire a lawyer whose billing rate is manageable for you or who is willing to create a payment plan you can live with. For example, the lawyer will agree to be paid at the rate of $300 a month for however long it takes you to pay the bill.
Hire a lawyer who is willing to unbundle his services and charge you as you go—only for the specific issues involved.
Ask to receive a detailed bill every month; the bill should describe services rendered and disbursements paid. Tell your lawyer you want this even if your retainer is not yet used up.
Ask that, except in the case of emergencies, you be notified in advance of any major work to be done on your behalf. Typically, you and your lawyer have developed the plan of action, but it is possible your attorney might be ready to make a motion that you think unnecessary.
Ask for an estimate of the disbursements in advance. You don't have to be told about every postage stamp being billed to you, but your lawyer should tell you about messenger services (whose fees can run from $50) or stenographers (deposition or trial transcripts can cost thousands of dollars).
Keep a record of the time you spend with your attorney on the phone and in person. When you get your bill, check it against your personal records.
We know of one instance in which two attorneys representing opposing sides in a divorce case met to reach a settlement. After the meeting, they went out to dinner together. One of the lawyers had the audacity to charge his client for the time spent at dinner and for the dinner itself! Needless to say, the outraged client agreed to pay only for the time spent on his case. Then, he changed attorneys.
Before you sign the retainer agreement, ask whether you will be charged a minimum for phone calls and what that charge will be. Some lawyers charge a 15-minute minimum under the theory that your call has taken them away from other work and they need time to “get back into it.” Others will charge a minimum of five minutes. Still others will only charge the actual time spent on the phone. If there is a 15-minute minimum, save your questions for one longer call rather than several short calls.
If you've gone to a firm with many attorneys, ask whether a good attorney with a lower billing rate will be able to do some of the work on your case. However, make it clear that for certain work—negotiations, for instance, or the actual trial—you want the attorney you hired.
If more than one attorney will be working on your case, find out before you sign the retainer how double services will be billed. If two attorneys are discussing your case, are you going to be billed at their total hourly rate or only at the higher attorney's rate?
Find out what you will be billed for photocopying and photocopy whatever you can yourself. Some firms charge as much as 25¢ a page. Time permitting, you could get copying done yourself for 4¢ per page overnight.
Ask your attorney to use faxes, delivery services, and express or overnight mail only when necessary.
Organize materials your attorney wants in the way she needs them to be organized. For example, if your attorney sends you a list of 20 documents demanded by your spouse's counsel, organize the records by year and category in separate folders. Your lawyer might want to change what you've done a little, but the cost will be far less than it would have been had you brought in a shopping bag full of receipts.
Don't engage your attorney in aimless phone calls. For example, don't start bad-mouthing your spouse, your spouse's attorney, the system, or the judge. Do not make small talk or discuss anything irrelevant to your case. You might feel better after venting, but you won't when you get your bill.
Can the divorcing couple use the same lawyer? It's possible, but it's not a good idea, no matter how friendly the divorce may be. Later, one of you might claim you didn't understand what you signed or that the lawyer or the deal was really one-sided. When claims of unfairness arise, judges usually don't like situations where there was only one lawyer. If your case is simple, both spouses might represent themselves in negotiating a basic settlement; then they might hire a single attorney to draft it.