Clients often ask at the outset of litigation: about how much is this going to cost? It is a completely reasonable question, but one that is nearly impossible to effectively answer.
The cost of your case will depend largely on three factors: (a) how much you come in knowing (or not knowing), (b) the complexity of the facts (how many assets are involved and the nature of these assets, whether custody is disputed, whether alimony is involved, etc.), and (c) the reasonableness of the opposing party. If you are knowledgeable about all of the assets in play and you and your spouse are able to resolve things quickly, by agreement, these are the least costly cases.
However, if you are not knowledgeable about the assets, you will have to do due-diligence to gather that information. If there are many assets or complex assets, your attorney may have to invest significant time in determining what your rights are. Even if you are able to do everything else efficiently, if your spouse will not agree to a reasonable settlement and the case goes to litigation, the costs may add up quickly.
It is difficult to impossible to accurately predict the cost of a case, but here are some tips for avoiding common pitfalls that add cost to a case:
- Get Regular Bills and Read Them. This may seem obvious, but divorce is a time of significant stress where many parties are exhausted, depressed or overwhelmed. Many clients have so much on their plate, they neglect to review bills from their attorneys. “Avoiding” bills for a few months can cause expenses to pile up. If bills are getting to a level where you feel uncomfortable, it’s time to speak to your attorney about changing your strategy. Reading your bills can also help you to realize WHY the bills are adding up and to change your behavior if you are contributing to the costs (for example: maybe I should schedule one weekly phone-call with my attorney instead of calling every day).
- Have a Plan for Paying Legal Bills. Even if your attorney believes you can recover some or all of your legal expenses at the end of the case, you will most likely have to make payments along the way. Make sure to discuss with your attorney the best plan for paying these bills (credit card, marital bank account, Home Equity Line, loan from a family member, etc.) Each of these options will have a different impact on your case and it’s important to make a thoughtful and strategic decision regarding how payments are made.
- Do Your Homework. Most attorneys will give clients “homework” during your case: gathering information/documents, answering interrogatories, reviewing and approving pleadings or letters, etc. – doing this homework fully, accurately and on time will help to reduce attorneys’ fees. Most attorneys have had experiences with clients where we have to ask clients 10-20 times for a certain document or set of documents… this creates substantial unnecessary, additional costs. On the other hand: if you are too overwhelmed and you need help from your attorneys, asking for help up-front will ensure your attorney has time to plan accordingly… waiting until the last minute may increase costs.
- Hire the Right Team. Hiring a legal team who has support staff, paralegals and younger attorneys in addition to the lead attorney on the case allows certain tasks to be performed at a lower rate. Make sure you are clear on who is responsible for which task. If a paralegal can do something, it will be less expensive to have the paralegal perform the task than the partner. In most well-run teams, the lead lawyer will have final say/review on all projects – this lawyer will need to make the decision regarding which professional is qualified to perform which task. (See article: Know Your Resources and Build Your Team).
- Recognize Windows for Settlement. There are specific points in the lifecycle of a case when cases often settle. Two common examples are: (1) before either party files for litigation, or (2) after the “discovery” phase of the case is completed. However, there can be other opportunities (after a favorable ruling on a motion… or when particularly favorable evidence comes to light). Clients sometimes want to push settlement when they become personally exhausted by the process… but the best terms are often achieved at one of these opportune moments. Make sure you have an open dialog with your attorney about ideal windows for settlement, and make sure you are ready with a plan to make the most of them.