In my past life, I was a divorce lawyer at a fancy law firm. I found the entire process of billing clients $300+ an hour and prolonging pointless arguments for years to be more than a little disgusting. The part that surprised me the most, though, was that the lawyers I worked with weren't the sleazy, dishonest shysters I would have expected. The majority were good, honest, hardworking professionals. The problem wasn't the individuals -- it was the machine of divorce practice in general.
Since leaving the life of pinstripes, mahogany desks and secretaries behind, I have helped out friends and relatives with their own divorces, and thus saved them from being caught up in a costly and frustrating system. As much as I'd like to, I can't save everyone, but I can share the following law practice secrets in the hope that divorce clients everywhere will save themselves a few bucks.
Here's how your divorce lawyer is screwing you:
- She's hyping you up. People knee-deep in marital breakups are angry and hurt. When you call your lawyer about the latest jackass behavior of your future ex, your lawyer will get fired up on your behalf. Making passionate arguments is part of the job, and any good lawyer should have the ability to be fierce on your behalf. But the fact that your lawyer can make a dazzling argument about something doesn't mean that it makes sense to fight about that thing. As brilliant as your lawyer may seem, there will be an equally fierce and determined lawyer on your opponent's side. Because outcomes in court are never guaranteed, and because legal battles can be very expensive, you need to make independent, financially sound decisions about what you will fight for and what you will let go. Resist the temptation to have your lawyer's advocacy fuel your personal fire. Remember, the longer the fight, the higher the bill.
- She's not shutting you up. Good lawyers understand that it is our obligation to answer clients' phone calls and listen to your concerns. And because client phone calls are billable time, your lawyer is never going to end the call while you're blathering on about how you feel and how hard it will be to start over after your divorce has been finalized. She'll will never say, "Shirley, this is the tenth time you've whined to me about what a cheating bastard Howard is, and this call is honestly a complete waste of time and money." If you're paying by the hour, make sure that there is a legal reason for the phone call. Otherwise, get a friend and take her out to lunch. It's cheaper, and usually more productive.
- She's delegating work on your case. If you've hired a firm, there is a good chance that more than one person is working on your case. Often, you'll meet with a partner (one of the big shots), but then an associate or a paralegal (much littler shots) will be doing work on your case. There's nothing wrong with some work being delegated, but you may not appreciate having hired an ultra-aggressive experienced lawyer for your divorce, only to find that a perky twenty-three year old recent graduate is handling most of your case. Simply put, if you're the one footing the bill, you're the one who gets to choose each member of the team. And there are often hidden costs that pop up when more than one person works on case. For example, the firm may bill you for both lawyers' hours when the two have a discussion about your case. Scrutinize your bill and make sure you're clear on who is doing what and why.
- She's hiring experts you don't need. There are lots of professionals out there who will be happy to bill you hundreds and thousands of dollars to do work they deem "essential" to your divorce case. But truthfully, unless you own a very complex business or your spouse has relocated to the Bermuda Triangle, there's usually no real need for experts to get involved. If you own a local business that has brought in30,000 a year for the past decade, you probably don't need a forensic accountant to predict what that business is going to earn next year. If you need to figure out how much value a deck added onto your beach house, is you probably don't need a structural engineer to calculate it. And you almost never need a private investigator to find out all the lurid details of your future ex's new relationship to figure out whether you're entitled to alimony.
- She's making judgments about how to handle your case based on what she thinks you can afford to pay. Divorce lawyers, like real estate agents and car salesmen, will do their best to predict what you can afford to pay. Your divorce lawyer isn't necessarily going to pad the bill when he sees you drive up in a Mercedes -- he just isn't going to cut you any breaks. There is always a cheaper, faster, and more efficient way to handle any case. Of course, that road might not be as aggressive or as careful as other possible roads. If you leave it up to your lawyer to decide, he may sell you the Maserati of divorces when you were really only comfortable buying a Honda. Think about your budget. Get a sense of how much your divorce could and should cost, and be clear with your lawyer about what you are and are not willing to pay
- She's not telling you that she's out of your price range. Law firms, like anything else in life, come in difference price points. There are Bloomingdale-esque law firms with fancy conference rooms and $700 billable hours. There are Kohls-level firms who can handle your entire matter for a $5,000 flat fee. And there are discounted service providers who work in bulk and charge even less. But just as the Bloomies shoe sales girl won't steer you away from the Louboutins, no lawyer is going to tell you, "Honey, I think our firm is far out of your price range." There are good and bad lawyers at every price range -- but it's your job, not theirs, to be sure that you're in the right place. The best way to find a professional in your price range is to ask for a referral from a friend or another professional you've worked with before.
Remember, when you hire a lawyer, it's no different than when you a carpenter. He or she has specialized knowledge that you don't have -- and that's why you're willing to pay for his or her time. But it's important that you keep your own perspective, and that you manage the relationship so that you are satisfied with the outcome.
For more tips on how to get the most of your legal dollars, check out Elura's book: How to Talk to Your Lawyer.
For more of all things Elura, check out www.EluraNanos.com