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

 

 

Bankruptcy: Watch out for the Marital Adjustment Deduction

divorce and bankruptcyWhen a person who is married decides to file for bankruptcy, the law permits him or her to do so alone, without requiring both spouses to file.  However, the non-filing spouse’s finances do play part in the filing spouse’s bankruptcy case.  The “means test,” including the “marital adjustment deduction” will be evaluated to determine whether or not the filing spouse qualifies for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, or to determine the amount the filing spouse will have to pay unsecured creditors in a Chapter 13 bankruptcy.

The Means Test

Even though you may feel that the only way out of your dire financial situation is to file for bankruptcy, a Westchester county bankruptcy lawyer points out that under the strict rules of the bankruptcy code, you may not qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy filing.  In a Chapter 7 bankruptcy,  the debtor essentially tells the court that he or she is unable to pay back any part of the debt owed to creditors.  In order to qualify, you must pass a “means test,” meaning that your disposable income must be below a certain level.  If you do not pass the means test, then under bankruptcy law you are presumed able to pay back at least a minimum amount of your debt, and you will not be permitted to proceed with a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.  As part of the means test the bankruptcy court will look at your last 6 months of income as well as your expenses.  Thus, even if you have a high income, if your expenses are also high, your may still qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.

If you are married, but separated and living in separate households, the income of your non-filing spouse will not be taken into consideration for the means test. However, if you are married, then your spouse’s income will be taken into consideration for the means test.  This could have a significant impact on the filing spouses’ Chapter 7 petition.  If the non-filing spouse’s income is too high, then you may not qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy.  In this is so then the “marital adjustment deduction” may help.

The Marital Adjustment Deduction

As part of the means test, you are permitted to deduct expenses from your income.  The “Marital Adjustment Deduction” allows you to deduct any expenses that your spouse pays that are not normal household expenses.  These “other” expenses are known as “marital deduction expenses.”  Examples of marital deduction expenses can include credit card payments for accounts that are only in your spouses’ name, child support payment for your spouse’s child, business expenses, student loan payments, and payroll deductions.  The net result of using the marital adjustment deduction is that if significant, it may offset at least some of your spouse’s income that you had to include in the means test.  Thus, you may still be able to qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy even though your spouse’s income is relatively high.

Alternative to Chapter 7

If after applying the marital adjustment deduction you still do not qualify for a Chapter 7 bankruptcy, you may be permitted to file under Chapter 13. While all of your debt will not be discharged, the total amount you repay your creditors will likely be significantly reduced and you will have 3-5 years to make the payments.   However, you will still have to disclose your spouse’s income and expenses, which may affect the total amount you have to repay your creditors.

The importance of Full Disclosure

Ultimately, both your complete financial picture and that of your spouse will likely be closely reviewed by the bankruptcy court to determine how the law will allow you to proceed with your bankruptcy.  Thus, it is important to be prepared with evidence backing up all claims regarding income and expenses, or risk having your case dismissed.  An even worse result would be having the bankruptcy court determine that you have committed or attempted to commit fraud.

Do you think it is fair that a non-filing spouse’s finances are considered when a married person files for bankruptcy?  What if throughout the marriage the couple’s finances remained largely separate?  Does this rule encourage spouses to legally separate or “pretend” to separate?

5 Things to Consider When Choosing a Divorce Attorney

(US family/divorce law & general tips) Most of us would agree that “things” have gone wrong long before you realize you must look for and pick a divorce attorney. Whatever is wrong with your marriage did not sneak up on you – it has been in the works for years. But you probably did not get much warning before the emergency alarm bells started to ring in your head. You may have discovered your spouse was cheating on you. Or one of you may have moved out of the marital home.  The most clear-cut emergency alarm bell may have taken the form of a process server appearing at your door.

Whatever the case, you fell into a situation where you had to pick a divorce attorney really fast.  That means you must make one of the most expensive, critical, and life-changing purchases in your entire life, and you must do it really fast. That is not the best of combinations to face. But if you follow this quick list you will find the decision a bit easier:

1.  You have 20 days to respond to the petition if you have been served. 

This timeline could vary in different states. Normally the time to respond is on the court summons.  What many people do not initially know is that a response can be put together and filed by an attorney in one day. Most responses are not a big deal. They usually consist of boilerplate provisions and are easy to bang out. So that means you have more time to pick an attorney than you think.  Don’t rush out and hire an attorney in one day. This is way too important a decision to make in a dire rush.

2. Do not call around for pricing and make a decision solely based on price.

There is an old saying: “statistics don’t lie, but liars use statistics.”  For this discussion we can modify that saying: “prices don’t lie, but liars use prices.” Understanding divorce attorney prices can be very difficult because most of the tactics regarding pricing will always be invisible. For example, you may find out the attorney that bills $100/hour is more expensive than the attorney with a billing rate of $300/hour. It all comes down to billing practices in that particular law office. One attorney might take four hours to draft your initial documents where another attorney takes one hour.  Another example is where attorneys quote their initial retainer. An unusually low retainer might be “burned up” in the first two weeks of the case.  A good attorney quotes a retainer that will cover a significant part of the case. That retainer should have some chance of covering your case through the end of mediation.  Most cases end shortly after mediation. So a realistic retainer should be designed to possibly reach that goal.

3. Carefully examine the appearance of the attorney’s office.

Not all attorneys have an office in Trump Towers. But any office should be reasonably neat and organized in appearance. Are there stacks of papers all over the office? Does the office equipment appear to be held together with duct tape? Does the attorney have personal pictures or other personal items in the office that show a long-term presence?   A disorganized office usually means a disorganized case.  Take the hint when the attorney’s office is a complete disaster.

4. Is your prospective attorney willing to give real answers to real questions in the first meeting?

A good attorney never uses mystery and fact spinning to get your business. They are proud to show off their expertise. Giving good answers to potential clients is a way of showing there is more expertise available in the same person. Try not to waste the attorney’s time – but you should have some expectation of good answers for your initial questions. Attorneys that do nothing but sell themselves are a red flag.

5. Did the attorney promise specific results?

If they did promise results, this is a big red flag.  Most state Bar associations prohibit promises of specific results. And the fact is that judges make decisions, not attorneys.  Besides, wouldn’t it be silly for the attorneys on both sides to promise completely opposite results? How could they ever both be right?  A good attorney will tell you the chances of success and then explain several possible scenarios based on your individual facts.

A good attorney will tell it like it is. Their pricing is transparent, ethical, and oriented toward the benefit of the client. They will show you their best in the initial interview and then continue to prove they are the correct pick by conducting an organized, cost-efficient case. Never make your decision on a moment’s notice. For a life-changing event, you must carefully choose who will best help you achieve your goals.  Make sure you follow these easy steps and you will soon be on your way to a new life and continued happiness.

The Many Facets of Restraining Orders and Divorce

While there are many reasons why a married couple may seek a divorce, ranging from lifestyle changes to irreconcilable differences, one unfortunately common reason is domestic abuse or violence. According to the Domestic Violence Resource Center, millions of men and women suffer from abuse at the hands of their partner or significant other. While many of these people do not seek a divorce, there are some that feel that divorce is the best, or only, way to escape the abuse.

Seeking a divorce in such a situation can be extremely helpful; however, divorces often take a long time to successfully complete, especially if children are involved. Additionally, while a divorce does separate two people, it does not guarantee that the abuser will not come into contact with or find a way to continue abusing the other person. In such a situation, a person suffering from domestic violence or abuse may need to take further action to protect themselves and their loved ones.

For anyone being subjected to physical harassment, verbal abuse, abuse at home, or other forms of intimate partner violence, one of the best ways to seek protection from the abusive party is to file a restraining order. When a court grants a restraining order, the restraining order will provide stipulations that the party whom the order is directed at must follow. Some provisions that a restraining order can have include the following:

  • Keeping the abuser away from the abused person, their home, place of work, and other important places
  • Preventing contact between the two parties, including phone calls, delivery of gifts, letters, and more
  • Stopping any physical abuse or threats of violence

While restraining orders are usually very helpful for people seeking to escape abuse, particularly before a divorce is granted, there are times when the use of a restraining order is abused itself. In such circumstances, one party may file a restraining order against their partner in order to gain power or leverage over them in a divorce. Because of the effects, both positive and negative, that a restraining order can have, when looking to either file for a restraining order or to fight a restraining order that was inappropriately granted, many people choose to enlist the support of a qualified divorce lawyer in order to give themselves the best chance of reaching the outcome they desire.