1. Have a Clear Written Fee Agreement
Most experienced and effective divorce attorneys charge by the hour and require an advance retainer (or deposit) that is paid at the beginning of the case. Fees and expenses will be charged against the retainer until it is exhausted, at which point the client will be responsible for any additional sums incurred.
Clients will sometimes seek an attorney who will represent them on a flat fee basis, thinking that this will save them money. The problem with this arrangement is that the attorney has no incentive to do anything beyond the bare minimum. The client often feels like his case is being ignored, the attorney often feels like the client is intentionally trying to take up as much of his time as possible, and they may both be right.
Whether you hire a lawyer on an hourly or flat fee basis, it is extremely important that you get a written fee agreement that makes clear the terms of the representation, including whether any retainer is refundable, how often you will receive statements, the attorney’s hourly rates, etc. You should get and keep a copy of this fee agreement.
2. Don’t Mistake Your Divorce Lawyer for Your Therapist
Divorces are extremely emotional. Because your divorce attorney is (or at least should be) firmly in your corner, talking to him can be a very reassuring experience. This person understands your side of the situation and it feels good to talk to someone who sees the righteousness of your position. Because it makes you feel better you get into the habit of calling often, almost daily.
Unless you have more money than you know what to do with you should NOT fall into this trap.
Remember that every time you call your lawyer the clock is ticking and you are getting billed by the hour. Think of it as a very expensive cab ride. As soon as you get in the cab, the meter starts running. It works the same with a lawyer, as soon as you are on the phone with him the meter is running and you are getting charged.
This does not mean you should never communicate with your lawyer. On the contrary, you should communicate with your attorney anytime you need legal advice on your case. But before you pick up the phone make a list of questions or issues you want to discuss and limit your conversation to these points without wasting time ranting about the unfairness of the situation.
3. Don’t Use Your Attorney to Negotiate a Division of Personal Items
Arguing about which party deserves the blue sofa or the bread maker is not a good use of attorney’s fees. As much as possible, you should try to resolve these issues with your spouse. Ideally, if you and your spouse have already separated, you could divide these items by agreement and exchange them before the case has been completed.
Then (when it is time to finalize the divorce) the provision in the agreement and/or Final Decree, would simply state that each party keeps all personal effects (furniture, clothing, electronics, appliances, kitchen equipment, etc.) in that party’s possession. This can save a great deal in fees by avoiding debates over property that has very little market value.
4. Don’t Throw Away Dollars Trying to Save Nickels
This is extremely important. People will often be very frugal about hiring an attorney and think they are saving a lot of money by hiring a lawyer for a small flat fee or by hiring someone who is inexperienced but will work cheaply.
This is a mistake.
Your goal should be to reach a reasonable settlement as quickly as possible. In order to reach this goal you will need an effective lawyer who sincerely shares that objective with you. That lawyer will then use his experience and skills to help you reach that objective.
But notice that I said a “reasonable” settlement, not just any settlement. If the other side cannot be convinced to settle the case on reasonable terms it is imperative that your lawyer be skillful and confident enough to effectively try your case.
Someone who is learning on the job, or is simply unprepared, can cost you a great deal of money. So don’t cheat yourself out of dollars in an attempt to save nickels.