Before you make the final decision to hire a divorce lawyer you need to completely understand how the divorce lawyer will charge for his or her legal services and costs. Attorney fees are fees charged by a lawyer for time spent on your case. Generally, a lawyer is free to set his or her attorney fees subject to state ethics or professional conduct rules. Attorney fees are usually charged in increments of time. The most common unit of time is 6 minutes which equals .1 hour of the attorney’s time. The time increment is then multiplied by the attorney’s hourly rate. (For example, .1 hour [6 minutes] x $350.00/hour is $35.00). It is important to know whether the attorney will charge a minimum of .1 hour for a task even if he or she spends less time or, alternatively, will charge the exact number of minutes/hours spent on a task. For instance, opening and reading an e-mail may take only 3 minutes but the charge will be for 6 minutes (.1 hour) because 6 minutes or .1 hours is the smallest unit of time the lawyer charges.
For some tasks a lawyer may charge a set or flat fee. For instance, the lawyer’s services for obtaining a judgment of absolute divorce, which takes minimum paperwork and time in court, is charged at the flat rate of $500. This protects you from unanticipated time charges that may occur from a lengthy wait in court or other unexpected events. It may also benefit the lawyer if he or she can obtain several divorce decrees at one court appearance. Most lawyers will not charge a set fee for a divorce case which has several contested issues.
Expenses or costs are charges you incur in the divorce case not including attorney fees. Examples of these expenses are: court filing fees, private investigator or expert fees, court reporter and transcript fee, legal research fees such as LEXIS or WESTLAW and accounting or forensic fees. Lawyers bill these costs directly to the client to pay or the lawyer may advance the cost and charge it back to the client on his or her bill. Lawyers usually bill expenses at their actual cost.
Some lawyers charge for the exact cost of postage, long distance telephone calls, copying costs and other office costs while others charge a set monthly administrative fee which covers all of the above individual costs.
The engagement or retainer agreement specifically spells out how the lawyer will charge you for attorney fees and costs. The retainer agreement should state the hourly rate of each attorney and paralegal or other staff who may work on your case. Read the retainer agreement before you sign it. If you later get into a fee dispute with your lawyer, the law presumes you read the agreement and understood it before you signed it.
Most divorce lawyers also require an advance payment or retainer of a certain amount before agreeing to retention by the client. These retainers, in North Carolina and many other states, are held in a trust account until earned. A lawyer earns fees when specific tasks are complete and billed to the client. Once billed, the funds earned are moved from the trust account to the lawyer’s operating account. The retainer payments are usually also refundable. This means that if the lawyer resolves your case prior to the retainer being used up, or for any other reason the lawyer does not complete the work and retainer funds remain in trust, the lawyer returns the remaining trust funds to the client after deducting any fees and expenses due and owing. Many retainer agreements also require the client to advance additional funds, in trust, when the original retainer is depleted or when upcoming events, such as a hearing or trial,will require work that exceeds the value of the funds remaining in the trust account.
It is important to understand that the number of contested issues in a case, a hostile opposing party, the difficulty of dealing with the opposing lawyer and other issues can increase your attorney fees both with regard to the original retainer and the amount of attorney fees you may ultimately pay. Further, remember that every time you talk to your lawyer, exchange emails or have interactions with a paralegal or other staff member about your case they charge for the amount of time they spend or the minimum time increment of .1 hour. You should consolidate your questions and keep phone calls and emails to a minimum. It is very common for clients to substantially increase their attorney fees because of the frequency of unnecessary phone calls and emails. When you receive a bill from the law firm, review it carefully and ask any questions immediately. Lawyers prefer to resolve questions or issues about bills soon after sending a bill to a client.