According to news reports this week, Britney Spears is planning to contest some of her divorce attorney’s legal fees, arguing that they are too high.
Whether you’re Britney Spears or Brittany Smith, divorce can be a costly venture – and being overcharged by a divorce attorney can be a real issue.
According to FWW’s Diana Mercer, a California attorney who specializes in mediation and is the author of “Your Divorce Advisor,” when clients feel they’ve been overcharged, the first step is to ask for an itemized billing and compare it against your own notes of phone calls, court dates, letters, and work you know the lawyer did.
“Your best action is to do this all along during the case,” she says. “Most attorneys bill you each month (and if they don’t, ask them to) so review your bill carefully each month and bring it to the attorney’s attention if you think you’re not getting good value for your money.”
Attorney Gregg Herman, the family chair of the American Bar Association, says that the client should also reflect on the conversations they have had with the lawyer.
“Good professional lawyers always assess the cost/benefit ratio to a client in recommending a particular course of action,” he says. “Ask to meet with your lawyer to discuss your concerns. Perhaps the lawyer can explain the bill to your satisfaction — or make an adjustment so that you are both comfortable with it.”
If talking with the attorney doesn’t give you the result you’d hoped for, you can ask the local bar association about its fee dispute mediation program.
“In Los Angeles, both the Los Angeles County Bar Association and the Beverly Hills Bar Association have fee dispute mediation panels comprised of laypersons and lawyers who help lawyers and clients resolve fee disputes,” adds Mercer. “And, there’s always the state bar association grievance procedure. It won’t get your money refunded but it will force the attorney to explain why the bill is so high to the bar association.”
There are other issues at play, however.
Mercer says that all too often, at the beginning of a case, a client will say “We need to find every penny! I don’t care how much it costs! I want justice!”
The kind of investigation and discovery necessary to do everything the client asks is expensive and time consuming — and probably not worth the expense.
Most attorneys will attempt to explain this to the client only to be met with, “You are working for ME, not my spouse. Are you on my side? It sounds like you don’t want to do the job I’ve hired you for so unless you’re going to do what I’m asking I’m going to fire you.”
So the attorney gets to choose between doing what the client asks for, knowing it probably isn’t worth what the client will spend, and getting fired.
Most attorneys choose the former.
As the case proceeds along, the client calms down, and the case eventually settles, suddenly all this urgent, necessary work which the client demanded the attorney do early in the case is seen as unnecessary, overly expensive and, now that the case has settled, worthless. Never mind that the client doesn’t remember that he or she demanded that the work be done, and that “I don’t care what it costs” was the instruction a few months ago.
Because emotions run high during divorce, another mistake clients often make is to use their attorney as a therapist.
As much as you may need to vent and have someone listen to your frustrations, it’s important to remember that lawyers aren’t trained to provide psychological advice. Furthermore, they charge by the hour — and generally much more than a therapist would.
Lastly, be sure to do your homework before every meeting with your divorce attorney. Research basic information on the web, carefully organize all of your documents, and keep a list of questions handy for every phone call.
The time you save on the phone with your attorney could be money saved for the next chapter of your life.
Click the following to return to the Divorce Resource Directory.