Without a doubt, this is the question I hear more than any other. Legal problems can be very expensive and many people put off talking to a lawyer out of fear of the legal fees. Very often people could lower the cost of hiring an attorney if they would do a little preparation early in their case. Here are some ways to make your legal representation more affordable.
Talk to a lawyer early
It may be tempting to put off talking to an attorney, but I will tell you that’s rarely wise. I very often get calls from someone who has a court hearing scheduled within a couple of days and they are just now trying to find an attorney to help them. The first thing you may discover is many attorneys will be unwilling or unable to take on a case with such short notice. You may find that others will demand a higher retainer due to the extra effort a last minute hiring will require.
The problem with this is it may be impossible for me to adequately prepare for a hearing that occurs in a day or two, so the first step I’ll have to take is to spend time asking if the hearing can be rescheduled. This will involve talking to opposing counsel, checking with the court for future available dates, and I’ll probably have to compose and file an order to set the hearing on another date.
Those things are in addition to the preparation I would have to do anyway, but I may have already spent a couple hours (or more) on steps I wouldn’t have had to take if my client had come to me earlier.
As soon as you are served with a notice of a lawsuit or any type of court hearing it is probably worth your while to at least consult with an attorney to discuss your options. Often the party who wins the day is the side who is the most prepared. Don’t handicap your lawyer by leaving him without enough time to prepare.
Come prepared with copies of critical records
When a new client comes to my office wanting to file for divorce, one of the first things I will need to do is establish the incomes and assets of the parties. This will probably mean gathering copies of tax filings, bank statements, investments, insurance policies, property deeds, etc.
The more time and effort I have to spend on all this will translate into more expense for you. On the other hand, if my client can provide all or most of this information in a way that is organized and clear, it will save me a lot of time.
You may also want to gather as much of this information as you can before you decide to move out of the house and away from the records. If you see a divorce looming in your future, there’s nothing wrong with planning ahead. You need account numbers for bank accounts, investment accounts, debts, and anything else you can find.
Often one partner in a marriage will come to me convinced that their spouse has a large amount of income from multiple sources, but my client has no idea where the money comes from or where it goes.
This information can be discovered by demanding records from the other party, but since I’m starting blind without any idea what I’m looking for, it may take a great deal of time and effort to find what may or may not be there.
I think I can speak for most attorneys when I say that we hate to be surprised. We hate it when we think we have the complete story only to find out there is something else we have to investigate.
How does this cost you money? When I interview my client to find out all of the relevant information about her case, I begin to craft a strategy that will control how I represent our case to the opposing side. If at some point later I start to find out that I didn’t have the whole story, I may have to retract previous statements I’ve made or even file amended versions of pleadings with the court.
Once the other lawyer realizes that I don’t know my own case, they will try to press this advantage and negotiations will become much more difficult. Taking steps backwards to investigate this new information and increased back-and-forth with the other attorney is time consuming and expensive. If the omissions are severe enough, I may have to withdraw from the case, leaving you with the added expense of hiring a new lawyer.
A successful conclusion of your case may be a settlement that both parties can live with and avoid further litigation and expense. Generally speaking, if this is going to work both sides will have to be willing to give in a little bit to the other side. You’ll have to take some of what you want, and give up some of what the other side wants.
Of course, you’ve hired me to fight for you, and some issues are certainly worth fighting over. The most vicious battles tend to be over the primary custody of the children, and it’s understandable why people will spend time and effort for this.
However, I recently witnessed a bitter court battle where the couple was undoubtedly spending thousands on their attorneys to fight over property like grilling utensils, a wicker basket, a garden hose, a VCR, and other sundry items. They even had a court reporter who was producing a transcript which will cost more than all of the property this couple was arguing over.
I’ll admit I’ve fought hard battles over nothing more than principle, but sometimes it’s wiser to step back and consider the big picture.
Be prepared to work
As your attorney there’s a lot of service I can provide for you. Sometimes I’ll joke with people that if they want to pay my hourly fee, I’ll come mop their floor. However, you may want to consider doing some of the smaller errands associated with your case on your own (including mopping your floors).
For example, if we need a copy of the deed to your property, I can run to the Register of Deeds office and get the copies. However, I have to charge for the travel time and the copies. On the other hand, this is a task my client should be able to handle on their own, saving an hour or two of my time and their expense.
Communicate with your lawyer wisely
I’ve advised you to talk to your attorney early, honestly, and as completely as possible. I stand by my advise. However, it is possible to go overboard.
Attorneys have to charge for the time they spend on the phone and responding to emails. If we didn’t it wouldn’t be possible to make a living.
While I encourage my clients to contact me if they discover something new or have questions about their case, you should be careful not to “wear your lawyer out”. Calling several times a day or emailing every time you have a thought may not be the best use of my time.
For example, one weekend I was at home playing with my dog when I got a message that one of my clients had an emergency and had to talk to me right away. Much to my dog’s disappointment, I got on the phone to find out what the problem was.
The “emergency” was that her husband had sent her a text message stating that if she didn’t agree to his proposed settlement soon, he’d take her to court.
That is not an emergency. It wasn’t a very nice thing to do, and I’m sure it was upsetting, but it was not an emergency that justified a weekend call. Like many lawyers, I charge higher rates for work I have to perform outside of business hours, and my client ended up paying a lot for something that could have waited for Monday.
Control what you can
Of course there are only certain things you can control. Most people would rather not be involved in a lawsuit in the first place and some expenses cannot be avoided. Also, when there is a lot of valuable assets or the ability to parent your children is at stake, it is not wise to get cheap with your legal representation. However, with a little effort you can spare yourself needless expense.
I’m always interested in hearing others thoughts. If you have additional suggestions or comments, I’d love to hear them!