I can often be heard saying, “people spend more time doing research to buy a new car than then to hire a lawyer.” Grant it, many people come to us as referrals; meaning we represented their friend or a family member and received high marks. But, many of our clients come in cold from a Google search or some other random search or even the phone book. In my 15 years of practice and fielding these calls, I note that potential clients sometimes jump at the first lawyer that will call them back – that includes me. Perhaps this is because of the urgency to speak to someone, which is understandable. Family law matters are emotional, hurtful and do often come with a sense of urgency to bring order back to a life turned upside down. But, this can be a downfall if it means not considering all options for good representation for your particular situation. This can also be costly, sometimes leaving the client with no funds to retain a new lawyer if the first one does not work out.
What to do? Approach hiring a lawyer with all the seriousness you do with any other major purchase. Remember, you are paying for a service after all.
Financial: What and how are you paying?
You’ve heard the saying: you get what you pay for. That can be true on both sides of the economic spectrum. Be weary of low or flat rate fees for litigation matters. But, be just as weary of high or inflated hourly rates. Just because the rate is sky high doesn’t mean you are necessarily getting better representation. Do your research. Get quotes on the overall cost for your particular situation. Compare the costs to discern what is commiserate and reasonable for your matter. Lawyers will not be able to give you an exact figure as there may be variables, such as who the opposing counsel is, how much your spouse or significant other wants to fight, etc. But, a good lawyer should be able to give you an estimate for what you can expect to pay for your type of case and should be able to explain the fee structure to you. The fees should always be reasonable to your situation.
Retainers and Billing Practices
Ask about the firm’s policies on retainers and billing and get it in writing. Be sure you fully understand the financial relationship you are about to undertake before signing a contract.
According to Abraham Lincoln’s Notes on a Law Lecture accepting a fee paid in full and upfront could lead a lawyer to be disinterested in the matter, perhaps even negligent of his/her obligations to the matter. Paying a small retainer up front – to be earned – or a small flat fee for limited work may be a better practice for both the client and the attorney. It keeps both the lawyer and the client on a level field with each other and keeps the consideration ever constant. Remember, you are paying for a service, so it is best to understand a firm’s billing so you can choose which method best fits your situation; even if that means going with a different firm.
Traditional Retainer. Some firms require a retainer that is then held and applied to the last billing; requiring you to pay monthly.
Refundable Retainer. Many firms, like our firm, have a refundable retainer. We take an agreed upon sum up front and hold it in trust. This retainer is then billed monthly with the client providing no additional funds unless the retainer is exhausted. Any money remaining in the retainer is refunded to the client at the end of a case.
Earned Retainers and Flat Fees. An earned retainer is an arrangement where part of your upfront payment is earned immediately upon retaining the firm or upon some act. This may mean the funds are not subject to any line item billing leaving the client with no visibility into the work being done by the firm. Also, be weary of firms that charge a “fee” plus a retainer or an earned retainer as such may not be in line with ethical practices. Ask what the “fee” is for and how it applies to the services you will receive.
Flat fees are a growing new trend, geared to do away with the billable hour practice. Our firm will use a flat for smaller ticket items, such as an uncontested divorce or limited work such as drafting a Will, name change or power of attorney. However, be sure you have a good understanding with your lawyer about what you will get if you do pay a flat fee, especially if you hire a lawyer that uses this model for all services, including complex litigation. This may require you to pay upwards of $25,000.00 up front therefore understanding the terms are critical.
Contingency Fees. This is when a lawyer is paid an agreed upon percentage of an award at the end of the case. Do know that in Georgia it is unethical for a lawyer to negotiate a fee contingent upon the divorce or the award of alimony or support.
Monthly billing. Discuss monthly billing practices during the initial consultation. Be sure you receive a statement each month. When hiring a lawyer, ensure that there will be an open line of communication should you have any questions about billing.
The Attorney-Client Relationship: What are you getting?
A good Fit
We want your business, no doubt. But, I find that the strongest attorney-client relationship is formed and works best (for both parties) when there is a good fit. This is especially true with family law matters; matters that are emotional for the client. You should also feel comfortable with the lawyer; feel as if you can tell him/her anything. A good lawyer will know his/her limits of expertise on your case and should be honest with you about those limits.
A Lawyer First
The lawyer’s job is to advise, to give guidance and believe it or not, tell the client when they are wrong. Your lawyer is not your friend and they should not just be a mouthpiece. After all, you hire a lawyer for their legal experience, knowledge and to give you all possible solutions. A lawyer should protect you even if this means telling you that what you want is not attainable. We call that being ethical.
You can certainly hire a lawyer to do what you want; however you may not be happy with the end results. Use a lawyer for his/her skill set; let them advise you and guide you. Do not be afraid to ask questions of your lawyer about the strategy. Involve yourself in the process – after all this impacts your life. My advice, hire a lawyer who is focused on your case and not one who is focused on your money.
160 Clairemont Avenue – Suite 450 – Decatur, GA – 30030