Family law

Keeping Legal Fees Down in Domestic Relations Cases

Divorce cases can be some of the most expensive legal disputes in which most people will be involved. Fixed fees can keep their costs under control.

The billable hour has become the norm in legal billing, but it wasn’t always this way. There was a time when a person went to the lawyer, told them their problem, the lawyer thought about it and quoted a fee, and that was the cost of the case.  With the advent of car accidents and personal injury claims the insurance companies began to retain individual law firms to handle all of their claims and required these firms bill their time on an hourly basis. 

The billable hour is now the business model for all law firms.  The problem is that it creates a conflict of interest between the lawyer and client. What incentive does the lawyer have to settle a divorce case when she/he has a “deep pockets” client with hurt feelings?  Legal ethical rules don’t help as it is very easy to justify time spent on a case. In fact, our civil discovery rules seemed designed to foster unlimited litigation in divorce cases!

In response, fixed fees are being made more available by family law lawyers. A fixed fee is a fee that is paid in advance and covers all legal fees through the completion of the case. A fixed fee promotes just the opposite incentive as the billable hour-  the attorney now wants to complete the matter as efficiently as possible in order to maximize their profit. 

Family law attorney’s that are offering fixed fees do so primarily in uncontested matters, such as drafting Property and Custody Agreements, Name Changes, Step Parent Adoptions, Uncontested Divorces.  

There has also been a movement to bring fixed fees to contested matters. In these cases an attorney will charge a fixed fee for the initial filing through a temporary hearing, another fixed fee for the “discovery” phase, and so on.  The problem is that the opposing attorney is billing their client hourly it may result in the lawyer charging the fixed fee to be overwhelmed and “out spent” by onerous and unnecessary litigation.

Most domestic relations cases do not require large expenditures of cash being paid to litigation attorneys. Consumers of legal services are best advised to try to limit the issues in dispute and bring only contested issues to their lawyers for resolution. Consumers seeking resolution of contested issues need to be aware that options exist, such as Mediation, Arbitration, and alternate fee schedules, to keep their exposure to legal fees reasonable.  

To quote Justice Sandra Day O’Connor: “The courts of this country should not be the places where resolution of disputes begins. They should be the places where the disputes end after alternative methods of resolving disputes have been considered and tried.

Have a great weekend and I hope you find this tip helpful!


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