Ways to Keep Your Legal Bill Down in Family Law
The cost of retaining a family law lawyer can range from cases where a client only needs a one hour consultation to straightforward and amicable separations where each party just needs some advice and someone to draft a Separation Agreement, which might be as little as four hours of legal work, to serious contested matters that are fought in court which might take many hours of work and be a significant expense. There was a case reported in The Globe and Mail recently where two separated parents spent two million dollars on lawyers between them fighting about access issues in court. While that is clearly exceptional, I have often had clients who have had previous lawyers issue what I consider to be shockingly high bills for the issues in that particular case.
The goal of lawyers and clients alike should be to achieve a fair and reasonable settlement, whether through agreement or, if necessary, from a court order, while spending as little in legal fees as is necessary to achieve that result.
Here are some issues that you might consider when thinking about how to minimize your legal fees in a family law matter:
Before you retain a lawyer:
-Check to see who will be billing time on your case and what their rates are. Consider whether you want to have multiple people on your file.
Obviously the hourly rate of the lawyer who is going to work on your case is a factor in the overall cost of your case. You should also know who else will be working on your case. Will there be a clerk? Will there be junior lawyers? Will there be an articling student? If so, what are the rates of each of those people? While there can be advantages of having multiple people working on your case, consider the time that each person working on your case will spend becoming familiar with the facts of your particular matter. Are you going to be paying for meetings where one member of your team briefs another member of your team on your case? If your matter is going to go to court, how many people on your legal team are going to come to court and are they all going to be billing you for their time? Consider whether it would be better to have just one person working on your case.
-Check if you will be charged for photocopy pages, for mileage, for parking, for stamps, for other things of that nature.
Some law firms charge you for each piece of paper that they use in your case. In other words, they not only charge you for the time that it takes to write a letter, as any lawyer would, but they charge you for each page of paper they print or photocopy. The per-page rate is often far higher than what seems reasonable. I had a lawyer once tell me that she made $100,000 in a year just in charging clients for photocopy and fax pages. That doesn’t seem right to me. The same is true for mileage. A lawyer will charge you for the time that he or she spends getting to court, which makes sense. Some lawyers will also charge you a mileage fee for that driving. You should know what that fee will be and consider that added cost. My personal policy is that I don’t charge my clients for any of those things. What my clients pay for is my time and any substantial costs I incur on my client’s behalf such as process server fees or court filing fees.
-Check if the firm has a policy about charging you more for a successful result.
I have seen retainer agreements in family law where there is a clause about charging you extra for a particularly good result. That also seems wrong to me. Any lawyer you hire should be trying to get as good a result for you as is possible. A lawyer is already charging you a substantial amount of money for the time that they spend. Your lawyer should not charge you an extra fee for doing a good job. That should be the expectation for all cases.
After you retain a lawyer:
-Put your best foot forward to try to settle your case
Almost all family law cases end in a settlement. Very few cases go to trial and even fewer cases need to go to trial. The single biggest factor in the cost of your family law case is likely to be how long it takes to reach a settlement or final order. You should do everything you can to make it so that you reach that settlement as quickly as possible. Be as generous as you can in making a settlement offer to your ex and make offers as frequently as you can. Make sure that if things have to go to court it is because the other party is being unreasonable and not because it is you who is being unreasonable.
-Consider whether you need an email a phone call or a meeting with your lawyer.
While you are going to need to communicate with your lawyer to give them the information that they need to do a good job, that communication can be a big part of your bill. Before you call your lawyer, consider whether it will take your lawyer less time if you send an email. Some things are best done on the phone or in person but many times an email is just as good or better for communication and will take your lawyer less time. If you do call your lawyer, make sure your phone call stays focussed and that you are not simply venting or using your lawyer as a therapist.
-Be diligent on doing what is asked of you so that your lawyer doesn’t need to send reminder emails
You are going to be given homework from your lawyer. For example your lawyer will ask you to gather your financial information so that he or she can draft a Financial Statement for you to swear. Do that homework promptly and deliver it to your lawyer all at once. You don’t want to spend money having your lawyer follow up with you on things that he or she has already asked you for.
-Make sure you will be sent bills on a monthly basis so that you can monitor how things are going
Your legal bills should not be a surprise. Regular monthly billing will allow you to monitor how things are going and how much your case is costing.