But market forces don't always work efficiently. For one reason, lawyers
like other service professionals have raised their fees without regard
for their intrinsic value or simple fairness. It is a matter of egoic
pride for many attorneys how much clients will pay. Clients have no practical
way to assert influence over this process.
In the Coachella Valley hourly rates for family law practitioners run from
$325 to $450, depending upon their experience and expertise. You should
ALWAYS hire only a Certified Family Law Specialist. Lawyers who don't
bother to become board certified are not committed to their craft, and
cannot see or navigate complex issues or high conflict divorces.
Our fees are currently between $375 and $425/hour for my services, depending
upon the complexity and "tone" of the case. Michael Peterson
bills at $365/hour.
Ironically, charging a lower fee can present problems for lawyers. Some
people assume that the best lawyers
charge the highest fees. This is not necessarily so, and has enabled less skilled lawyers or more
aggressive attorneys to hide behind higher rates. Some of the
old school lawyers who are the least efficient in handling cases and tend towards the greatest
conflict are the most resistant to lowering fees. Lawyers who charge the
highest fees should be certified specialists, period.
We think we can have it both ways - that we can be
dynamically superior and competitively superior as well.
Q. What does the lawyer's staff charge and how are responsibilities
A. Whatever can be delegated to a lesser charging worker should be, so
long as the work product is actively supervised by an attorney. There
are a number of tasks that can be handled efficiently and inexpensively
by staff or legal assistants. They provide a huge cost benefit to you.
So long as the lawyers are not delegating legal functions to unsupervised
persons this practice should be encouraged and supported. Diane Dancy,
who manages our office, came to me as a divorce client in 1992 and has
become the most competent legal assistant within the Coachella Valley.
Her daughter Kristin Dancy (whom I've known since she was 5) came
on board six years ago and become a certified California paralegal.
Q. Is there a Divorce Retainer and if so, how much is it?
A. Lawyers universally require retainers which really ought to be called "retainer deposits".
In family law the process of a case involves a beginning, middle, and an
end. In order for lawyers to devote their energy and attention to the
business of a case, they need to be assured of continuing payment as services
are rendered. You don't want them doing superficial work because they
fear you can't pay. They need to be on an equal footing vis-a-vis
the other spouse's attorney, meaning it is inappropriate that one
side's fees are being covered while the other side's fees are
not. Parity and equality is assured through a retainer deposit.
The amount of a Retainer Deposit is typically the minimum amount the attorney
is willing to accept to take on the responsibilities of a client's
case, and so set aside the time to work it and forego other cases and
to begin work. Lawyers determine the amount based upon their perception
of the complexity of the case, how much they estimate it may take to handle
the matter through completion or some other stage, the timing of their
involvement (i.e., is a trial scheduled next month?), the identity of
the other attorney (i.e., does that attorney have a reputation for aggressiveness
and sharp tactics?), the attitude of the other spouse (are they likely
to resist disclosing needed information?), whether there are sufficient
resources available to take the case to its conclusion, creditworthiness,
how long they must wait to be paid in full, whether the client has a history
of hiring and firing prior attorneys, and the lawyer's perception
of how cooperative or conflicted a potential client may seem.
Sometimes setting an exorbitant retainer deposit ($15,000 or more) is a
way of saying "I'm not sure I want to accept your case, but I
can't resist that big a fee". Some lawyers demand large divorce
retainers to feel and make their clients feel that they are important
- it can be a sale's technique.
For the simplest of cases with the least experienced family law practitioners,
the minimum retainer deposit tends to be at least $2,500. Otherwise retainers
tend to be approximately $3,500 for simpler marital dissolution. Sometimes
we will accept less for limited appearance cases - simple support or custody
modifications or domestic violence cases.
The unused portion of a Retainer Deposit is always refundable to the client
upon termination of the attorney's services to the extent the fees
have not been earned. In other words, retainer deposits are never earned
upon receipt. This is required by the State Bar rules of professional
conduct. Lawyers can be disciplined for ignoring these rules.
As with any other subject, you should ask an attorney how he or she sets
their retainer. But be careful, lawyers do not want to accept clients
whom they perceive as difficult: Indeed, they will quote those potential
clients the highest retainer deposits!
Q. Does the Retainer need to be replenished from time to time?
A. Retainer Agreements often provide for the replenishment of the Retainer
Deposit, by new deposit, under certain circumstances typically when the
case seems headed for trial. There are "evergreen" retainers
where the client is required to maintain a fixed amount in trust at all
times, and to replenish that amount when it dropped below an agreed upon
number. We frequently use them.
Q. Do attorneys take credit cards?
A. Most attorneys accept credit cards. Understand though that they must
pay a fee to the credit card company to process the charge, which can
be substantial. We accept all major credit cards, as do most attorneys
who have significant practices.
Q. Will lawyers accept partial retainers or payment plans?
A. Lawyers have differing practices on accepting partial payments. This
depends upon their perception of you. If they worry that you could become
unreasonable or that you have destructive expectations, a prudent attorney
will not accept part payment. The person who wants to cheat the other
side will be distrusted and by her attorney!
On the other hand, once a relationship is established attorneys will work
to help you afford their services. If you meet your promises and treat
the attorney honorably, they will reciprocate. This includes all types
of creative arrangements, including installment payments.
We work with our established clients on a case by case basis.
Q. What are the attorney's billing practices in terms of periodic statements?
A. The attorney should agree to give you, and you should actually receive,
billing statements on a frequent recurring basis that are detailed and
We bill each month.
If you have questions about the charges, ask. It is best to inquire immediately and not as an after thought at some
later time. Any ethical attorney will be grateful to dispel any confusion
or concern you have over their billings or their billing practices. You
are entitled to review your billing statements upon demand.
Q. What are the refund policies if I reconcile with my spouse or switch
A. Attorneys are required by California State Bar rules to refund all unused
fees promptly, for whatever reason, when the relationship ends unless
you have a Flat Fee arrangement where all the monies have been earned
upon retention. Attorneys are required to provide your original file to
you, after they copy it at their own expense. Attorneys cannot hold a
file hostage for unpaid fees. They must sign a Substitution of Attorney
withdrawing from the case upon demand, regardless of whether or not they
claim you owe them money. They are required to give a full statement and
explanation of your fees and charges upon request. Refusal to do within
10 days or less may be a cause for State Bar discipline.
Q. What about court ordered attorney fees?
A. If a court order directs the other side to pay your attorney fees in
your attorney's own name, then they are the one entitled to collect
and receive these monies, but only to the extent they are actually owed
these sums. For instance let's say your Wife is ordered to pay $5,000
to your lawyer, Attorney Smith. You discharge Attorney Smith and hire
Attorney Jones, and Attorney Smith is only owed $2,200. Attorney Smith
is only entitled to that sum and you and your new attorney are entitled
to the balance. I have written a number of blogs on this subject, so please
use the on-site search engine in the upper left of your screen for current
information about the state of the law.
Q. How do I dispute the amount of fees my former attorney charged?
A. I intend to blog this soon, but in the meantime please check out my
Resources page under "Hiring an Attorney/Attorney Fee Disputes."
Q. What about other sources to pay attorney fees? Can I secure the fee
obligation with real property and so pay later?
A. Generally, other than cash, credit cards, or borrowing, the only other
way to secure representation is through a FLARPL (pronounced flarple).
This is a lien, or security interest, against your equity in real property.
It is disfavored by Judges and lawyers, and is hard to secure over the
objection of your spouse. But it is a viable way to get an attorney on
board in a difficult case if the attorney is willing to accept it. The
current erosion of equity in the real estate market demonstrates why attorneys
are reluctant to utilize this method to secure fees.
Here is a recent Blog from Michael Peterson that discusses the mechanics
of FLARPLs and charging liens, along with exemplars.
Q. What will my family law case cost?
A. This is a difficult question to answer because no one has a crystal
ball and each person's needs differ according to their circumstances.
Attorneys resist answering this question. Any estimate can change as the
case progresses, so if a lawyer gives their best guess but the assumptions
are naive or optimistic the estimate proves useless. Much depends on how
the other side behaves, and many things aren't known at the outset.
Still, an experienced lawyer can provide projections. You have every right
to press this question before you retain the lawyer, but beware: Some
lawyers may understate reality and give you an unrealistically low projection,
and while your tendency might be to go for the cheaper estimation, I'd
tend to trust the lawyer who over-estimates as being more credible.
Cases which can be amicably resolved usually should cost under $4,000,
including your filing and process service fees of about $500. The average
case where one side or both starts out conflicted, or where there are
some mildly complicated financial or custodial issues to straighten out,
costs at least $4,000. Obviously, cases involving businesses, other complexities,
unusual facts, or 2 or more parcels of property can cost more.
When you hire a lawyer, they should tell you how they plan to tackle the issues. Setting out a strategy, goals and a timeline can significantly improve
efficiency, and it is certainly a source of relief for clients.
Q. What about divorce contingency fees?
A. These are unavailable in family law cases.
Q. Are flat fee agreements available in family law proceedings?
A. Not necessarily. They are frowned upon by the California State Bar,
and yet many attorneys offer them. They can be a good solution, but with
some risks. Flat Fee agreements limit the lawyer's compensation to
a fixed total sum. This may shift the burden of shouldering extra time
costs of litigation to the lawyer, while limiting your obligation. Costs
may or may not be part of the flat fee. In modification proceedings or
amicable dissolutions they may be an excellent way to place a ceiling
on what you pay.
We rarely accept flat fee cases because we have found they encourage some
people to litigate endlessly.
Q. What are unbundled legal services?
A. The California legislature has made it easier for family lawyers to
get in and get out of a case to perform specific tasks like making court
appearances. This allows people to get the help they need without being
forced to pay the lawyer for what they might not, thus making services
more affordable. This can be similar to a flat fee arrangement.
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by Desert Divorce Services Attorney Thurman Arnold, CFLS