Getting the Most Out of Your Family Law Retainer

family-lawThe day that you most dreaded in your divorce has come—the receipt of your attorney’s billing statement.  After having put it aside, and having found ten other things to open in its place, you are left with the one, unopened envelope, bearing your attorney’s logo, and certainly carrying no news of anything good.  You carefully open the envelope; you are surprised by how many pages fit into that one envelope.  Unfolding the pages of the billing statement, there it is for you to see: every single minute spent on your case, either detailed so precisely, you find it irritating that your lawyer would have been so picayune, or detailed so generally, you cannot understand how that much time was purportedly spent, doing so little.    And what is the only thing missing?  The majority of your initial retainer.

As a St. Petersburg practicing attorney with 26 years of experience in the Tampa Bay area of Florida,  the last twenty years having been spent in family/criminal and personal injury law as Attorney Hanks, P.A.,  I am here to tell you that I take no greater interest or appreciation in creating that billing statement, than you did to open and read it.  And not matter how much I prepared you for this moment when you first read and signed my fee agreement, you likely did not realize the math involved:  .10, the lowest hourly percentage for which most attorneys will bill, when applied to a $275.00 hourly rate, equals $27.50.  Ouch.   Read your letter to me?  $27.50. Sent you that email? $27.50.   That time, last week, when you called me to ask about your hearing date? $27.50.  And that is just at that hourly rate.   Applied to the higher hourly rate of attorneys in bigger cities or in bigger firms, those small activities could run $35.00 each ($350.00 per hour), $45.00 each ($450.00 an hour), and so on.  How quickly then, will your retainer be exhausted?

So, how can you prevent this?  What can you do?  My first suggestion, at least if you are not already in an hourly billing arrangement, is to ask your attorney for a flat fee quote, for part or all of your case.   This is not as unusual as it may sound.  Criminal Defense fees are standard flat fee arrangements.  Personal Injury and Probate fees are usually flat fee arrangements as well, though these will be based on a percentage of the recovery or the amount of the assets.  Professionally, I have had my fill of hourly billing arrangements, even in family law cases.  No client wants to see how much I am charging for an email response and I do not want to account for every email I send a client.  In this age of electronic communications, many of emails are sent when I am out of the office, either in Court waiting for a hearing, in a break between depositions, or even out to dinner with my family.  To have to account for them the next day or days after, becomes a burden.

For the attorney, the basis for a flat fee in a family law case, whether the case is a divorce, child custody, child support or paternity case, is the same as the basis for a flat fee in a criminal case.  Each case is going to have the same initial, basic components, and the same, initial procedures.    For my clients, in a Florida family law case, these are the pleading stage, the exchange of mandatory disclosure (financial documents), and the attendance at an initial, family mediation conference.  I know the amount of time each one of those actions takes, both before in preparation, during, and upon its conclusion.  No matter what the dynamics of the case, these three elements will be present.  For the client, the flat fee is somewhat of a relief.  They know that their case, at least up to a point, will cost  “X” amount of dollars.   I say up to a point, because mediation may not settle all of the issues in a case.  Depending on what issues are left over to be tried, then different amounts of time will be needed to bring the case to a conclusion.  But even in those situations, I will try to provide my client with a flat fee quote for their representation beyond the mediation, and through a trial.

But what if you are already in under an hourly billing arrangement, how do you get the most out of your retainer?

1.  Understand The Billing Arrangement.  Recognize that you are under an hourly billing arrangement.  Recently, I had a divorce client, who had received a billing statement tell me, “I didn’t know you billed for emails or phone calls.”  Well, most family lawyers do, as our time I one of the things we are selling.  Whether we spend ten minutes in a phone hearing on your behalf, or ten minutes answering your email, the cost is the same.   Therefore, clients should only contact an attorney, when he or she absolutely needs advice or information.   If you call me to ask if there is anything new in your case, I will be happy to tell you that there is no new update to provide you, but I have to charge you for having had that phone conference.

2.  The Minimum Fraction of Time: Keep in mind what I wrote earlier, that the minimum slot of time for which an attorney will generally bill you, is .10—six minutes or one tenth of an hour.  If you send me five separate, short emails to review, you will spend much more of your retainer than you would have spent, had you sent me one longer email to review.  The same applies to phone calls.  Ten phone calls over two weeks, will cost much more than one longer phone conference, or even an office conference.

3.  The Attorney’s Assistant or Paralegal.  Whenever possible, is to speak to the attorney’s assistant or paralegal, instead of the attorney.   My hourly billable rate in St. Petersburg, Florida, is $275.00 an hour, but I bill my paralegal at $75.00 an hour.  If you want to confirm your hearing date or time, you can get this information from my paralegal at a much better rate, than getting me on the phone.  Now this will not work for anything that requires legal advice or consultation.  In those instances, the paralegal should put you through to the attorney, but you will then get billed for having spoken to both.  However, for any time that you are simply seeking procedural information, contact the paralegal or legal assistant.  He or she can inform you just as easily as the lawyer can, and at much less of a cost.

4.  Follow instructions.  This would seem to be unnecessary to relate, but I have found this is the source of the greatest increase in billable time, and the greatest reduction of a retainer.   It is, though, quite basic, and at the heart of any successful representation.  Comply with your attorney’s instructions.   When your attorney asks you to provide certain documents, provide them.  I have had clients who have refused to provide many of the financial documents necessary for mandatory disclosure (tax returns, bank statements, etc..), on the belief that those records are either not relevant to the case (Florida’s financial disclosure requirements are the same—whether it is a new divorce or a modification of an older custody judgment), or the client believes the records should not be seen by the other party, for the sake of confidentiality.  This leads to additional and unnecessary communications with me or my paralegal, then to letters and motions to compel filed by the other side, and finally to an actual hearing, so that the client can be told by the family law judge, what I have been telling him or her all along—provide the documents.  And at that point, the client has not only run up his or her own legal fees, but now may be subject to paying the other side’s attorney’s fees, for having to take that step.  It is simply a waste of a retainer, and potentially hampers the progress of the case on the actual issues such as alimony, child support or child custody, if the client has to raise more money to continue the representation.

If you follow these steps, you can guarantee you will make your own legal representation more affordable and more effective.  And as a result, you will be more satisfied with your attorney, and more likely to refer a friend with a divorce, time-sharing or other family law case.  So, both you and your lawyer come out ahead.

 

Mark Hanks, Attorney Hanks, P.A.

Your Family Attorney

www.attorneyhanks.com

St. Petersburg, Florida

Copyright 2014

Representing yourself in Court? Good luck with that.

representing yourself in family courtI have had potential clients ask me, often with a cautious hope, whether their particular type of legal matter, is something that they can handle for themselves.  It is a question one would never ask a physician, an electrician, or an auto mechanic, but one that I believe, is often asked of attorneys.  I tell those individuals that the answer to that question depends on how comfortable they are with understanding and researching the law, presenting evidence, cross-examining witnesses, rebutting legal arguments, and making a persuasive argument to the judge.  Really, though, it is how quickly a person can gain and condense the specialized education and 26 years of experience that I have, into the time that person has to prepare for their hearing.

Recently, I appeared in Hillsborough County Court, in Tampa, for a Small Claims Pretrial Conference before Judge Gabbard.  My client was being sued over a nominal credit card debt, the type of case that over the past five years, has been prosecuted with greater and greater frequency.  Like many different types of court divisions, such as traffic, criminal or even some family divisions, the court calendar was a cattle call.  Of that the cases on that calendar, two individuals had decided to represent themselves.  The first was being sued, on behalf of a debt to a person who had owned the company he had recently purchased.  As the plaintiff was not suing the company, only the former owner, this was a debt for which the individual standing in Court was not responsible, and legally, could never be held responsible.  The plaintiff’s attorney was not about to point this out to the defendant, though he did try to change the subject whenever the judge tried to imply to the defendant—judges cannot give legal advice to either party, that the plaintiff had sued the wrong person.  Without any help or advice from an attorney, the defendant proceeded into a side room of the courtroom, and began discussing the terms of a repayment plan for settling a debt that he did not owe.   The second, unrepresented litigant, was a young woman suing someone on a debt.  In explaining to the judge why she had not gotten service on the defendant, she expressed frustration that the Sheriff’s process server did not do more to serve the defendant, when she was convinced the address she had provided was correct.  Again the judge could not advise this plaintiff, all she could do was reschedule the case for another pretrial conference, and tell the plaintiff to make sure she obtained service on the defendant.

In less than five minutes after their hearings, I told each of these strangers what they needed to know before and for the next time each comes to Court—perhaps to the irritation of the collection agency attorneys gathered in the Court room.  The two pro se litigants were fortunate that I did so, but the point is, neither of these individuals had any business going into Court without an attorney, or without even having consulted an attorney.

While these situations played out in the civil division of the Hillsborough County Court, I have encountered similar situations in St. Petersburg and Clearwater, especially in the context of Family Law cases.  I think in every domestic violence calendar (the hearings in which a Family Law Division Judge rules on entering or dismissing injunctions for the protection against domestic violence (commonly known as, “restraining orders”), that I have attended, at least one unrepresented respondent agreed to an injunction being entered against him.  Similarly, at least one unrepresented petitioner agreed to dismiss her attempt to get an injunction.  In those situations, no testimony is taken, the judge moves onto the next case, and I am not sure the individual parties know exactly what just happened.  And for those injunction cases in which one party has an attorney and the other does not?  There is clearly a mismatch, as the one without the attorney is required to follow the same procedural and evidentiary rules that govern the actual attorney.  As long as the lawyer is on his or her game, the pro se litigant will be kept from testifying to what someone else told him or her (hearsay) and kept from showing the judge what some law enforcement agency wrote about the incident (more hearsay).  From a professional standpoint, this makes for a very effective and satisfying presentation on the part of the attorney, and a very ineffective and even frustrating presentation on the part of the person representing himself or herself.  Why then, do pro se litigants go into that dark night so easily and willingly?

I am sure finances have much to do with it.  But given the number of attorneys out there, it is hard to believe a party cannot find an attorney whose fee requirements, or payment plan, can fit their budget.  And even if one cannot afford to have an attorney there beside them, at least they should consult with one beforehand, to get a better idea of their rights and how to handle the hearing.  I am willing to bet that almost every private and practicing attorney in a county, state or country, will sit down with a potential client, upon request, and advise them of their rights in the area of the attorney’s expertise.  Depending on the attorney and the attorney’s experience, it might cost a consultation fee, but the knowledge the person receives, will be well worth the value—both when walking in the courtroom, and when walking out.

Mark Hanks

Your Family Lawyer

Attorney Hanks, P.A.

www.attorneyhanks.com

Copyright 2014