Why Legal Representation Is So Costly
Some competent attorneys are willing to work out a payment plan in advance. It is to the attorney's advantage to make it as painless as possible for you to keep up with the bills. Many attorneys never collect the fully billed amount. If you take responsibility by requesting a payment plan, the attorney is more likely to collect his fees and be agreeable.
All lawyers do is talk, right? And don't they say talk is cheap? Not when there's a Juris Doctorate after the person's name.
Lawyers charge a lot because they usually have high overhead: an office, a receptionist, a secretary. Someone has to pay for it, and it won't be the lawyer. Lawyers have at least seven years of post-high school education (four years of college and three years of law school). For recent graduates, educational costs could be as high as $120,000 or more. The lawyer is recouping that investment.
Finally, lawyers charge what the traffic will bear. Put simply, moneyed clients are ready and willing to pay these high fees, and there are enough moneyed clients around to keep lawyers from having to worry about volume. As more attorneys enter the field, billing practices are beginning to change, and fees are coming down in some areas. But until that happens in more significant numbers, costs will remain high. Remember that you will need to pay your lawyer at the current market rate if you want her to work for you.
How Matrimonial Lawyers Charge
Many lawyers charge an hourly rate and bill you for every hour worked. If Paula Smith's rate is $150 an hour, and she does 10 hours of work for you, you'll get a bill for $1,500. It can be pretty straightforward. If you are hiring your lawyer à la carte, you'll pay as you go.
Most full-service lawyers, on the other hand, want some payment up front. This fee is called a retainer. The amount will vary depending on where you live, your specific case, and the lawyer's hourly rate. In the New York City area, some matrimonial attorneys charge as much as a $10,500 to $20,000 retainer. In other states, some lawyers charge at least $25,000. (That's not the bad news; this might only get you started! You'll probably spend much more than this if you have a protracted case.)
After you pay the retainer, your lawyer subtracts her hourly rate from what you've paid for each hour worked until the case is over or until she depletes your retainer, whichever happens first. If your lawyer has used up your retainer, you'll start getting bills. Some lawyers will want a new retainer; others might simply bill you on a weekly or monthly basis.
Wait a minute, you might think. Doesn't the hourly billing rate encourage the lawyer to drag out my case to earn more money? Although this might seem easy, within the profession it is considered unethical for a lawyer to deliberately drag out (“churn,” as lawyers say) a case. Another deterrent is that when a case drags on, lawyers can lose clients, or clients will not be able to afford to continue paying. It's possible that the lawyer won't collect everything he's owed. Whatever he doesn't get paid is written off and, in effect, reduces his hourly rate. On the other hand, if the lawyer finishes her work within the amount of time covered by the retainer, she gets her full hourly rate and comes out ahead.
Does that mean you don't have to pay your bill? No. However, it does mean if ethics don't stop a lawyer from dragging out a case, the practical realities of collection will.
In matrimonial law, it is very hard to predict how much time your lawyer will have to spend on your case. If you and your spouse have agreed on everything up front, the lawyer won't have to do much more than draft the legal documents, make sure you understand them, get them to the other lawyer, and then, eventually, submit them to the court. If you or your spouse are at war, a lot of time will be spent on your case, and you can end up spending an astronomical sum of money.