The dissolution of a marriage often comes at a time when a family is going through a financial as well as emotional crisis. Sometimes the emotional crisis can make the financial one worse by increasing the attorney’s fees incurred and costs expended. For example, if a spouse is vindictive or just plain upset, he or she can refuse to negotiate in good faith, or act in such a way as to provoke numerous court appearances or otherwise delay the proceedings. When this happens it is usually beyond our control, and we have to cope the best we can though the mechanisms provided by the court. Frankly, it can be extremely expensive and frustrating.
However, you can help to keep your fees and costs to the minimum for your case by following these simple rules:
1. Remember that talking to me on the phone is expensive. My time and skill in the law are all that I have with which to make a living, and I must charge for the time I spend on the telephone just as I charge for research, document drafting, and court appearances. Therefore, you can save yourself a great deal of money by not always asking to speak directly with me. As a general rule, discuss your needs first with my paralegal, my law clerk, or my accounts manager, or my front desk administrator. If legal advice or intervention is needed immediately, they are trained to recognize it and will bring it to my attention, as soon as possible. Furthermore, if I am in court or working on a research project, or otherwise unavailable at the time, a detailed message through my staff will get my attention a lot faster than simply asking me to call you back. Better yet, my assistant can often handle the problem right then and there. If you wish information on a court date, the status of service or filing of papers, or other similar information, they can help you as well as I can and at much less expense to you. My account manager can answer all of your billing questions, again at less expense to you. Finally, if you merely wish to leave some information such as an address, telephone number or some figures that I have requested, please leave the message with my staff or with the answering service if they are available.
2. Remember that I am trained as an attorney, not a counselor. Certainly, unless I understand the nature of your relationship with your spouse, I cannot represent you as well as I might. For that reason, I will spend some time with you exploring this interaction, especially toward the beginning of the case. From what you tell me, I may be able to point out some of the “games” that are being played and how to avoid being one of the players. A dissolution or other family law matter can be one of the most stressful times of a person’s life, and it is to your best legal interest that you cope with the stresses. If you are not thinking clearly, you may be inclined to make decisions on whether or how to settle the case that will be very expensive in the long run. However, at some particular point, I will have learned what I need to help you legally, and I will be giving you the best advice I can on how to cope with the legal and practical aspects of the case. From that point on, my listening to your non-legal experiences with your spouse, your spouse’s faults and other matters will usually appear on your monthly statement. Generally, this will be the case after the initial consultation or first court hearing.
3. Participate as effectively as you can in your own case. Your time is likely to be less expensive to you than mine, and you will certainly be more familiar with many of the details. Therefore you will probably wish to obtain and organize as much of the information and documents for your case as possible. For example, in a case involving child or spousal support, the required income and expense forms are long and complex and require extensive background information and documentation. Experience shows that if you use your best efforts to complete these forms and provide the information and documents before the appointment at which we will discuss them, you will save up to two hours at that appointment and will be able to most clearly and favorably present your evidence to the court. If my office has to do all the work involved in preparing these forms and organizing the information, your case will become more costly. If there is a delay in preparing and filing such documents, the other side could apply to the court for sanctions in the form of a money judgment against you, use the delay in answering as an excuse to postpone court dates, request that the court prevent you from having your evidence submitted, or invoke other penalties.
4. Organize your questions and concerns so that they may all be discussed at one time rather than on separate occasions. It is generally much less expensive to have one long discussion rather than several shorter ones.
5. Think about settling the case instead of going to trial. Under the best circumstances, a trial’s outcome is uncertain. It is very unusual for husband and wife to recall things in the same way, especially the circumstances and understandings involved in acquiring assets or incurring debts. Because of such factual disputes and because there are numerous unsettled areas in the law, neither I nor anyone else can accurately estimate the odds of any particular outcome, nor can any single result in the case be guaranteed, if trial is necessary. For these reasons, trial is generally not in a client’s best interest if it can be avoided, and it is almost always best to settle the case if we can obtain a reasonably fair agreement. Therefore, as soon as we have enough information to evaluate the issues, I will usually seek your authority to negotiate a settlement.
Despite this, my usual office practice is to file a request for a trial date fairly early in the proceedings. This has the effect of putting an externally imposed time limit on negotiations. Even if the case may not actually be tried on the first assigned trial date (usually because the court schedule is overcrowded), there is an incentive to negotiate and achieve the best settlement for you. We present the position that we are prepared to try the case, unless we receive an acceptable offer. Just because we have filed a request for trial date, you do not need to assume that your case will go to trial or give up on trying to think of constructive settlement possibilities.
6. Particularly if your spouse has an attorney, please do not try to settle any major issues directly with your spouse unless you have discussed your proposals with me first. You have hired me because of my knowledge of the technicalities and practicalities of California Family Law, and if you try to negotiate major issues yourself you may unwittingly waive substantial rights, fail to provide for certain common contingencies, or otherwise damage your case. On the other hand, after discussion I frequently advise clients to attempt to settle who is to receive items of furniture, furnishings, appliances, and other personal and household items directly with your spouses. “Trying the Tupperware” issue usually results in spending more money to divide these items than it costs to replace them.
7. Please call the office if your address or telephone number changes, so that we can reach you. Sometimes it is important that I talk to you within a few hours, and it is most helpful for us to have both a home and a “daytime” number.
8. Please call the office if there are any important changes in the facts or your circumstances. These changes can drastically affect the case, the best strategic approach to it, and our position. I may not be immediately available to talk to you, but I will do my best to return all calls that require a response or have them returned by my staff. If you need to speak to me, I will be happy to accommodate you as soon as possible. I only want you to remember the financial realities; my time is billed at a much higher rate rather than that of my staff. Just as I give attention to your case when I am working on it, I have other cases that also require full attention when I am working on it, I have other cases which also require full attention when I am working on them.
9. In all cases, tell us the truth and provide complete and accurate documents, even if you fell that it is embarrassing or may not be information you want to share. Having to work without full and accurate information almost always leads to performing work over and over again that should have been finished the first time and unpredictable, to say the least, hearing in court.
I don’t want you to have the feeling of “Don’t call us, we’ll call you”. On the contrary, there will be times, perhaps many, when you will need to speak to me. I urge you to do so when necessary. Please bear in mind that, in the most literal sense, my time is money and if you always insist on speaking to me you will probably be wasting your money. Again, my assistants and my accounts manager are trained to recognize when your case requires my immediate attention and to assist you at other times. Most legal matters move slowly. Unless a threat of physical violence or other irreversible and immediate harm is present, there are few situations that require immediate action (or in which immediate action is even possible).
Similarly, while you can leave messages with my answering service evenings and weekends, and while I can usually be reached in a real emergency, there is almost no action I can take until normal business hours that you cannot take yourself. You will have copies of existing court orders. With very few exceptions, new or different orders cannot be obtained after court hours. Please try to be patient, organized, and bear in mind which services can be provided best by myself, by my staff, or by someone else.
TLC, Bringing peace to the legal process.