It seems a lot of people are unclear about the process for setting up a consult with an attorney. From the attorney’s point of view, let me just tell you that I can learn a lot in just a few seconds based on how that first phone call is conducted. Anyone who just assumes that I can talk to them on the spot or will give them free advice over the phone is not the right client for me. Those that respect boundaries and the profession understand that you need to set up a time to talk, and you should ask what the consult fee is in advance because there is quite a range, and it is your job as a client to know what you can or cannot afford.
Often times, the only thing people want is one hour of my time to hear the facts of their case, and then give them an overview of the law and legal process. Any good attorney should be able to do this within one hour– highlight the main legal issues you need to address and explain how the legal system works. These consults should be empowering because knowledge is power– you should leave knowing exactly what your rights and obligations are in the event of a divorce. Then, you can plan your next move.
There are 3 key fee arrangements people need to understand:
1. Free consults– These are not the norm for family law cases, unlike in other areas of law, where it might be unclear whether you have a good case, for example with a bankruptcy, personal injury, employment issues or immigration. The attorneys that handle these types of matters will usually offer a free consult precisely because it is unclear if they will be able to help you until they talk to you a bit more about your situation. However, free consults are actually rare in the legal world, where the average range for a consult is from $200-600, depending on the attorney’s hourly rate.
2. Flat fees– In family law, this only applies when we know there is a certain number of hours it will take to do a specific task, for example drafting a Prenuptial Agreement or a Separation Agreement, or drafting the court documents for an uncontested divorce. The preparation of these documents is something that can be easily predicted and quantified, however, if you have a contested divorce, there is no real way to predict the costs, the time that will be spent in court, etc. As a result, flat fees will not apply to contested divorces, and you should ask what the range is for a contested case. Anyone with 10 years experience should be able to give you a range– even though you may not like the figure.
3. Retainer Agreements– After a consult, I like to send the client a retainer agreement that s/he can review and then return when s/he is ready to proceed. This is a legally binding contract engaging an attorney’s services, and they usually require an upfront deposit that can range from $1,500- $15,000 depending on the complexity and status of a case. That contract should specify the billing practices and hourly rates of those that will be providing services. Some contract attorneys just for advice and consult, without the need to enter an appearance in court. That will definitely cost less because it is the litigated cases that suck up the most resources. Now some states require those retainers to go into a trust account, most do not give the client any interest, and generally if there is money left in trust at the end of the day, it should be refunded to the client. Not all attorneys have the same billing and administrative practices, so you really need to review this agreement carefully and ask questions if you have any before you sign and send your check to the lawyer.
Hopefully, these points help clarify things for those out there seeking a consult. And just 2 more things to remember: 1) time is money, and 2) when you are talking to a lawyer, talk is NOT cheap.
By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.