As in most other professions, the best attorneys usually charge the highest legal fees. By “best” we mean those attorneys who obtain favorable results for their clients in most cases. They usually have many years of experience; have only one area of “concentration,” and rarely stray into other areas. This is especially true in the case of divorce lawyers. In and around Boston, Massachusetts, experienced family law practitioners will charge at least $250.00 per hour of work. Many of the best charge $500.00 or more. “Billable time” includes time spent in meetings with the client, opposing counsel, and other individuals such as expert witnesses. Time spent in research and drafting letters and pleadings is, of course, billable time. Most attorneys also bill for time spent traveling to and from court, settlement negotiations on the courthouse steps, and waiting for their cases to be called. Time spent on the telephone and the omnipresent blackberry is also billed.
Of course, not everyone needs or can afford the top shelf attorneys.
This doesn’t mean that people of moderate means can’t get competent representation. In many cases, a junior partner or an associate (a lawyer who has not yet been taken into the partnership) will be able to handle the routine cases and the routine aspects of the non-routine cases. Research and drafting can often be done by paralegals. All of their respective billing rates will be considerably lower than those of the seasoned litigator.
In Massachusetts, no attorney can take a divorce or related matter on a contingent fee basis. That means that they can’t charge a percentage of the value of the property division and support the client ultimately receives. The basis for compensation is almost universally, hours spent on the case plus expenses. In almost all cases a divorce practitioner will require a “retainer” upon, or soon after, taking the case. This is a payment in advance for services and costs. It is held in a special account from which the firm draws payment when it becomes due, usually monthly. When the retainer is depleted the client will be requested to replenish it.
If one party controls all the liquid assets, the court can compel him or her to pay up-front legal fees to the other. The court can order such fees to be paid as a “predistribution of marital assets.” That means the party who receives the payment will have that amount deducted from his or her share during final distribution. This does not always happen, and you should be aware that you may have to borrow funds (from relatives, for example) to fund your legal team. It’s a good idea to determine, ahead of time, if such an arrangement is available should you need it.
Before you begin interviewing prospective counsel, you should have an idea how much you can afford and be willing to pay. Consider how much money and other property is at stake, whether or not there will be custody and visitation disputes, how bitterly you think issues will be contested. Big asset cases often can lead into complex areas of valuation and tax consequences. If the marital estate (the parties’ combined net worth) is $1,000,000.00, having each spouse expend $500,000.00 in litigation costs doesn’t make much sense.
Stay tuned for Tip #4!