When it comes to family law, billing practices differ greatly from other areas of law. This means that for most people, hiring an attorney for a family law matter requires utilizing their hard-earned financial resources. Contrary to other types of cases where an attorney can receive payment based on contingency (from funds won in a settlement), family lawyers and their legal professionals are paid by the hour for real time spent representing their clients. Most family law attorneys charge a consultation fee for new clients and require a retainer at the onset of representation.
A retainer is a sum of money that is held by the firm in a trust account, from which they draw payment for their time spent on the case during each set billing cycle. The reasoning for this common billing practice is the client is paying for the time, experience, and knowledge of the attorney rather than a negotiated percentage of money awarded to them at the end of the case. Additionally, family law professionals are ethically prohibited from taking cases on a contingent fee basis with some very rare and specific exceptions.
In family law, there are no “winners” and the source of the funds available is the parties themselves, not an insurance firm or other entity. The goal of family law is to get clients in the best position possible to be able to carry on and live successful lives after their case is finished.
Family law attorneys must master how to efficiently represent their client’s best interests within the bounds of the resources available to them. In addition to the attorney taking the necessary precautions to ensure each client’s funds are utilized in the best way possible, each client also needs to ensure he or she is doing what they can to preserve their resources and reduce legal fees. There are various ways a client can save on legal fees that also have a positive effect on the case, such as presenting a more thorough and organized case.
Throughout a case, an attorney or paralegal will request copies of necessary documentation related to the matter. These requests may seem voluminous at times, but it is a legally mandated and important part of the process. When providing documents, the more organized they are, the less time the paralegal or other support staff will need to spend reorganizing them when processing (preparing them for use and recording data) for the file, which in turn cuts down on billing time and saves the client money.
It is important to check with the attorney and paralegal regarding the best method for providing documentation such as email, Dropbox, paper copies, etc. Most firms utilize electronic files, and in those cases providing electronic copies of documentation would prevent the client from bearing the cost of the time it takes to organize and scan physical copies of documents into an electronic file.
However, there are circumstances where a client may only have paper copies and no way of providing electronic copies. Ensuring the documentation is well organized and not stapled or written on will also assist in conserving fees.
Each firm also has its own way of organizing documentation. For example, a firm may organize financial statements by account number and institution in a certain chronological order. Checking with the attorney or paralegal regarding the best organizational method ahead of time will cut down the processing time as well.
In addition to providing the statements, including an explanation of each account’s primary use or origin will also assist the attorney and paralegal with analyzing the financial documents provided.
Another frequently requested form of documentation is correspondence between the parties or relevant communications associated with the case. When providing copies of correspondence, it is best to provide them in chronological order with the date, time and sender/recipient easily visible to the reader.
For example, if a paralegal receives screenshots of text messages with an opposing party and they are out of order then the paralegal must then bill to organize the messages in the appropriate order so they can be used effectively. Additionally, if the date, time and sender/receipt is not visible in the screenshots, this will result in the paralegal having to contact the client to resend the messages in a format that allows for the requested information to be shown. These details are especially necessary when using correspondence as exhibits for a court hearing.
It is particularly important that clients provide documents by the date they are requested as those internal deadlines are in place to ensure that all statutory deadlines in the case are met. Not providing timely documentation may result in multiple follow-ups from the attorney or their staff which is billed to the client.
They may also be waiting on pertinent documentation to complete various drafting or mandatory disclosures in the case. When these timelines are not adhered to, it creates an unnecessary delay in the case which again will eat into the client’s funds.
The paralegal will organize and process the documentation provided while also preparing drafts of legal documents to be filed in the case. Providing comprehensive, complete copies of the documentation requested will ensure the drafts are also comprehensive and complete, resulting in less need for follow-up and aid in negotiations.
The less time the paralegal and attorney must spend trying to organize and make sense of the documentation provided by a client, the more time they have for substantive work on the case like strategizing with the information at hand and determining how to best support their legal arguments. In the long run, this helps prevent cases from dragging on longer than necessary and reduces fees over time.
It is crucial for each client to keep an open line of communication with his or her attorney’s office to ensure they are staying informed about the case and allowing the attorney to keep the client’s file up to date. This line of communication can come in the form of regularly checking emails and responding, returning calls, providing updates, checking on the status of the case or asking any questions that arise.
Providing timely responses to communication received from the attorney or legal staff will ensure that all issues are addressed more quickly. If a client is non-responsive and the attorney or the office must follow up multiple times, the resulting fees from those follow-ups will surely add up. Good communication will also assist with keeping your case moving forward.
Any significant changes to the case should be relayed to the attorney or paralegal so that the client can be provided with feedback on the next steps and allow the attorney to assess if the current course of action is still appropriate. For example, if a couple decides mid-divorce that they would like to reconcile, it is important to let the attorney know immediately so the attorney ceases any work progressing the divorce.
Sending the attorney and paralegal one email with a summary of issues or list of questions rather than sending multiple emails in a day ensures the client gets the answers needed in the most cost-effective way. This allows the attorney or paralegal to address the compiled list of issues or questions in one sitting rather than several emails or calls back and forth. These emails also keep a record that can be referenced if the client needs to refresh his or her memory on a topic previously discussed.
Most clients are going through a highly emotional and stressful time and its normal to not retain the constant influx of information, so emails are a key tool to keeping thoughts organized. Of course, this does not mean that clients should not call their attorney or paralegal but is less expensive for the routine and non-emergent management of their case.
Clients should make the paralegal the first point of contact when issues or questions arise. This will significantly reduce costs as a paralegal’s billing rate is generally much lower than an attorney’s. It is important to remember there are many questions the paralegal may be able to answer right away and if they can’t, they are able to quickly obtain the answers needed. They know the ins and outs of the case and are responsible for its daily management, an will ensure the client receives time needed with their attorney.
In summary, there are many ways clients can help preserve their hard-earned resources and reduce legal fees throughout the pendency of their case. While each case is different and requires a unique dedication of time and effort, the attorneys at Terry & deGraauw, P.C. have a great respect for their clients’ resources and work diligently to provide effective and efficient counsel, ensuring each client has the best-case outcome and quality of life in their future post-family law case.
–Devonne Lopez, Firm Administrator & Paralegal, January 2023