After losing a spouse or longtime partner, it's difficult to look past your grief. However, it's crucial to understand the important and timely decisions you must make regarding your finances and personal estate plan.
Knowledge of and Experience in Domestic Relations
When an attorney passes the bar, that attorney is licensed (with a few exceptions) to practice any manner of law in that jurisdiction. Passing the bar exam in and of itself does not make an attorney all-knowing (it does, however, mean they know a lot of Latin and French), and Domestic Relations isn’t even on the Ohio bar exam. Family law is full of distinctions and subtleties that can vary greatly from jurisdiction to jurisdiction, so it is incredibly important for a DR lawyer to know their business. DR work is a common area for general practitioners, so do not read this to say that only DR/Family Law firms are suited to handle DR work, just do your homework. Reliable free lawyer referral services are usually provided by the state bar association, but be careful of private referral services. Frequently the only thing that makes an attorney the “designated” or “specialist” attorney on a private referral website is a monthly fee.
There is nothing wrong with flat fees in many legal matters, including some DR work. They make the attorney responsible for economically using their time, and give an incentive to quickly and efficiently finish the work. Things like DUIs, Wills/Trusts, certain other criminal matters, etc. generally have a very predictable amount of work attached to them. However, flat fees are not well suited to legal matters that have a large variety of complexity, complications, and necessary time commitment. Many domestic relations matters fall in the latter category.
One friend of mine who I had advised in this way asked, “Well isn’t it good for the attorney to have a fire lit under them? I want this done quickly.” Unfortunately, a flat fee may give an incentive to finish fast, but it also encourages them to be less extensive. In many if not most domestic relations matters, delays are for the most part enforced by the court, not propagated by either party. Furthermore, the incredible range of complexity of cases, amicability of the parties, and unforeseen issues that arise in DR matters are so variable (and hard to judge at the outset), that flat fees are frequently inappropriate.
This section is not to say that flat fee billing is inherently inappropriate for all domestic relations matters. I myself sometimes charge a flat fee, but potential parties should be on the watch-out so that their interests are in line with their attorney’s compensation structure.
Bad Time Accounting
Questionable accounting is something we should all be on the watch for in all of our more complex transactions, legal proceedings being no exception. With the sophistication and relative simplicity of modern accounting mechanisms and software, it is really no excuse any longer for attorneys not to be able to reasonably outline their time and expenses incurred. Keep in mind, however, that consistently harassing any person doing work for you about accounting may persuade that service provider to no longer do business with you. Also remember that human beings are not infallible. It is one thing to ask about where a four hour “Miscellaneous” charge came from, and quite another to complain that it took a whole 4/10 of an hour to draft and send a letter.
I advise friends to ask about how billing is done and recorded at the initial consultation. If they think there is a discrepancy, simply call and ask politely what a particular charge was for. However, I caution them not to overuse such micromanaging. Not only could it aggravate your advocate if it is done frequently or unnecessarily, but their attorney has a contractual right (and likely duty to his or her firm) to charge you for any and all conversations and communications.