When the initial lawyer/client interview takes place, it covers a lot of ground, but sooner or later, the discussion gets to the issue of cost. We divide the subject into three parts; hourly rates, retainer, and total fee.
Charging by the actual time spent is the normal means by which representation is provided in the family law area. Lawyers’ hourly rates range anywhere from $100 to $500 in the extreme. Currently, $250 to $450 will encompass the broadest range of competent divorce attorneys. A higher hourly rate is not always a guarantee of superior services any more than lower rates are a bargain. It is said that two good lawyers on a case will result in lower total fees than if one is inexperienced or unprofessional. Family law, generally, is not the place for the self-styled litigator. There are attorneys who think that the practice of law is a game, and there are more than enough clients who engage these divorce attorneys to be like gladiators on the field. Inevitably, the case is unfocused and horrendous amounts of time and money are spent on posturing, frivolous pleadings, and encouragement of disputes. In the meantime, the parties are not getting to what really divides them and what they must do to bring an end to the litigation. The guiding principle should be attorneys who do not just tell their clients what they want to hear, but are truthful with their clients, maintain realistic expectations, and are realistic about fees.
Hourly rates are a very minor indicator of the total fees, which are much more driven by the methodology of the lawyer, the problems encountered (over which an attorney may have little control), and the honesty in which they do their billing. Unlike many other service trades in which the bulk of the service is done in the presence of the patient or client, a great deal of an attorney’s work is done outside of the client’s immediate presence. Clients can only rely upon the trustworthiness and professionalism of the attorney.
We bill monthly and itemize in tenths-of-an-hour increments (which will result in a lower overall fee than billing in quarter-hour increments). The billing details the nature of the work preformed and the date. Thereafter, the client will always have a ready means to analyze their attorney’s performance and there is much less likely to be a future fee dispute.
Any experienced attorney in this area knows that it is just not possible to be an effective representative if you also become your client’s banker and creditor. Therefore, it is common that there be a deposit of funds called a retainer into a trust account. The amount will vary with the nature of the case and will be determined as a result of the initial interview. Retainers can range anywhere from $1500 on up with respect to whether there are serious property litigation, business evaluations, and custody issues. In every instance, however, an attorney should be able to review why the retainer is set at any particular amount, and the retainer should be refundable, meaning that at the point representation should cease (regardless of the reason) any positive balance in the retainer account be refunded to the client. Finally, it is very common for retainers to be replenishable, meaning that from time to time during the course of the case, additional deposits may be required.
What’s the total bill going to be?
The only honest answer to this is “I don’t know.” It is our judgment that there is the greatest chance of misunderstanding and feeling of betrayal when a divorce attorney attempts to guess the total cost of a case in advance. It simply cannot be done with any reliability, and the moment the amount predicted is exceeded, a client might well feel that the attorney must not have known what they were talking about in the beginning because they misjudged the amount. We never quote what we believe a total fee will be and basically believe it dishonest to do so. At the same time, we point out that things do not happen overnight, and early in the case, a client will begin to understand why the costs are what they are. Decisions are made constantly through effective communication between the attorney and the client of the various options available and whether to incur certain costs.
The amount of the fees can become an important factor that leads to settlement of the case. It is for these reasons that we regularly tell clients in the initial interview that they should be very careful, indeed wary, of the attorney who tries to predict the total fee in the beginning; likewise, one should be wary of an attorney who quotes a flat fee. In the first instance, a flat fee may well put the attorney in a position of, in effect, working for nothing at the most critical stages of the case when the case requires their most serious devotion. In the latter instance, a divorce attorney who quotes a flat fee for what starts out as a major case but falls into place quickly results in both unjust enrichment to the attorney and the belief by a client that the attorney misrepresented the seriousness of the case. Obviously, we cannot predict the future. The simplest cases have a way of falling apart, and some of the most complicated and traumatic matters sometimes fall together very quickly.
We hope that this frank discussion of fees will assist you in your discussion of fees both with us or any other attorney. One of the most important things that I have learned in my career is to be upfront about fees. It is potentially an area of great misunderstanding and hard feelings. We want to have happy clients who feel like they were fairly treated and were not caught by surprise with regard to the cost of the litigation. We would rather not be retained by a client who would settle for nothing less than being told only what they want to hear instead of what is the realistic truth.
About the author of this Illinois Divorce FAQ:
Robert K. Downs is a partner with Chicago, IL family law firm Downs Law Offices.