For those about to embark in the divorce process, it is important to understand the four main types of services that we generally provide for clients with family law matters:

(1) initial consults;
(2) flat-fee services for preparing specific documents;
(3) alternate dispute resolution; or
(4) representation through retainers.

Initial consults are key because they provide clients with an overview of the law, including their rights and obligations, as well as a detailed explanation of the legal process.  It is important to obtain this information, together with an expert’s advice on strategy, early on and usually a one-hour consult in the DC Area ranges from $300-$600, depending on the attorney’s reputation and level of experience.

Flat-fee services are typically offered for drafting or reviewing Separation Agreements and/or uncontested divorce documents simply because the time involved with these services can easily be predicted.  Flat-fee arrangements are not available in contested situations.

Alternate dispute resolution is conducted outside of court and includes using an attorney as a mediator or working in a Collaborative Divorce Process.  In these arrangements, you may be able to pay as you go for these services, without the need for hefty retainers because you are agreeing to avoid litigation and instead focus on an amicable settlement.

Representation through retainers requires clients to pay a deposit towards the legal services requested. Essentially, it gives clients the ability to have a lawyer “on call.”  When we are on retainer, we provide on-going advice and consultation, negotiate with the opposing counsel, draft all necessary documents, and attend court appearances as needed.  This full-level of service is not something that many can afford, which is why in a post-recession world we have seen a dramatic rise in limited engagement retainers that dramatically narrow the scope of an attorney’s representation.

Limited engagement retainers are a bit controversial because there is a concern that people may not fully understand what this means, but I believe this a-la-carte style of purchasing can be easily explained to customers, who will then have greater control over their expenses.  These limited engagement retainers typically exclude representation in court, which is the most costly aspect of our legal services.  The point is that we get to coach our clients through the process, helping them file the appropriate legal documents and advising them on strategy, without any commitment to appear in court.  Of course if that client’s case does not settle, s/he must be prepared to go to court on his/her own.

Ultimately, divorce clients have to be realistic with their own budgets and find ways to work within their limits.  Family law cases are civil matters, and the government does not have any responsibility to provide attorneys in these cases, except in very specific actions such as those involving child support or abuse and neglect claims.  It is also not the lawyer’s problem to figure out how the client will finance a private action– that is where friends, family, bank loans or credit cards come into play if a person lacks sufficient means to pay for legal representation.  Law firms are not intended to be financial institutions, and attorneys need to avoid conflicts of interest that can easily be created once they are put in the position of acting as lenders with their clients.

Hopefully this helps clarify the options available, and more will make an informed choice that is appropriate to that person’s budget.

By Regina A. DeMeo, Esq.