How much will my case cost?

I confess that lawyer shows are my guilty pleasure.  They are so unlike the real thing that the escape into fantasy is thrilling.  I wish I could be like Jack McCoy giving sanctimonious lectures to defendants while they’re on the witness stand.  I wish I could yell at someone during a 30-second deposition like Harvey Spector, then receive a phone call from the other party later the same day, begging to settle while I spin a basketball signed by Michael Jordan on my fingertip.  Alas, real life is not that way.  In this blog article I will discuss how billing typically works for a law office and some factors to predict a range of total cost for a custody case.

TIMEKEEPING

If you watch popular lawyer shows on TV, you have probably heard references to “billable hours” and “six minute increments.”  There is a difference between time spent in the office and time which is billable to a client (although I’m sure some lawyers may disagree).  Billable time, at least my view, is time spent actually working on a case.  Just because a file is open on my desk while I daydream about challenging an opposing attorney to a boxing match, like Harvey does in Suits, doesn’t mean that’s billable time.  If I’m writing a letter to a witness, client or another lawyer, that would be billable time.  If I’m talking to a witness, client or another lawyer, that would be billable time.  If I’m researching cases or statutes which govern a case, that is billable time, and so on.

The level of detail on billing statements will vary from office to office.  I probably fall into the more detailed end of the spectrum.  Some lawyers will just say “phone call” then the time spent.  I typically will state who was on the other end of the phone call and what the conversation was about e.g. “phone call with Louis Litt RE mud bathing.”  I realize that lawyers are expensive, and I take being accountable for all time billed very seriously.  This involves detailed billing statements sent to clients at regular intervals which account for each task billed.

Most lawyers, including me, will bill in six minute increments with upward rounding.  For example, if I talked to a witness for 18 minutes, that entry would have a .3 on the client’s bill because there are three sets of six minutes in 18 minutes.  Also, 18 minutes is .3 of an hour.  If I talked to a witness for 22 minutes, I would probably .4 because the time amount is closest to 24 minutes.  Some lawyers will have an automatic charge which applies to phone calls, letters etc.  Even a phone call lasted 30 seconds they might still bill .25.  I don’t do that, but I might charge .1 for a 3 minute phone call because that’s the lowest billing entry.

RANGE OF TOTAL COST

When meeting with clients for the first time, they often ask “how much will this cost?”  For some things, this is an easy question.  If I’m drafting a non-complicated will, then I would quote a set price, and the client could choose whether to hire me knowing what the exact cost will be.  For litigation the question is much more uncertain.  There are many factors outside of my control, so forecasting is an educated guess at best.

I like to think of total cost predictions as three different ball parks.  The first range is from $1,500 to $2,500.  This would be a typical uncontested case, including the filing fee.  This would be where all terms are agreed, and the parties just need to jump through the required hoops before they can get a final decree.  Sounds like a lot still?  Are you wondering whether you should call one of those people who advertise on poster board outside Wal-Mart? (they aren’t lawyers BTW)  Remember you get what you pay for.  Despite what some people think, we didn’t just learn how to change names in forms during law school.  There’s a lot of things to consider which could complicate even the simplest of divorce or custody case.

The second ball park has a range of $2,500 to $5,000.  This would be a situation where both parties came in with lots of bad blood, typically displayed in a contested temporary order hearing, discovery, or a deposition.  They will fight like Harvey Spector and Louis Litt for awhile, then they will decide that fighting is too expensive and decide to settle.  The fee increases dramatically as court appearances increase.  Time in court means preparation (at least two hours for every hour spent in court).  It also means waiting for the judge to call your case, waiting for a court reporter to transcribe what is said, travel to the courthouse etc.  This ball park will often involve discovery, which is the process of obtaining evidence from the other party and third parties.  If there’s a big stack of bank records to be reviewed, you can bet on a big bill.

The third ball park involves a contested trial with witness testimony and documentary exhibits.  The time for a trial can vary, but for a non-complicated case, a trial will typically last one whole day.  The range for this ball park would be $5,000 and up.  I’ve had cases with total billing well in excess of $30,000.  Some cases can last several days.  A trial day usually involves around 6 hours in the courtroom.  As stated above, good preparation will usually be at least two hours for every hour in court.  For trial this is especially true.  Trial preparation will be 2.5 to 3 hours for every hour in court.  If you have 6 hours in court, with 15 hours of prep at $200 per hour, a trial will cost over $4,000 just for the trial.

HOW CAN ANYONE OTHER THAN RICH PEOPLE AFFORD A LAWYER?

Reading my last section you may be in despair about finding a lawyer for a case that is sure to go to trial.  Sometimes a trial really is unavoidable given the people and issues involved.  Some lawyers, including me, will take a deposit instead of a large retainer, then let the client do a payment plan.  Payment plans for my office must be at least $250 per month, and the deposit is typically $1,500.  The average retainer fee for a good family law attorney is around $3,000-$5000, so $1,500 is much less than the norm.  A lot of people can afford a modest deposit with a monthly payment plan while their situation may never allow for paying $5,000 all at once.  The terms of payment arrangements vary from case to case.  If it looks like a very time-consuming case, with lots of contested hearings, a lawyer may want a larger retainer.  On the other hand, two young people with no kids who want a divorce may be a much lesser fee up front.

CONSULTATION

To get a better prediction on what your case will involve, both cost and procedure, you should come in for an in-person consultation.  I will do consultations for free if you come to the office.  Otherwise phone consultations are $100 flat fee unless you live out of state.