Did you know that the national average cost of a divorce is approximately $15,000 per person? And that’s just an average. I’ve been involved with divorce cases that ran well into 6 and even 7 figures. Ouch!
Divorce is a financially taxing situation, and huge legal bills can be crippling. Don’t kid yourself into thinking this isn’t true just because your spouse may be the one writing the checks. The money to pay your legal bills has to come from somewhere. Chances are it’s coming out of the same pot you’re ultimately going to divide.
The good and bad news is this: you have a big impact on the size of your legal bill. Yes, you. Way more than you realize. I’d go so far as to say that you personally can affect the amount of your fees – up or down - by as much as one-third! That’s a lot of moolah.
As a lawyer, I’ve sent out thousands of legal bills. I’ve also personally received and paid legal bills as a client. I know what it feels like to tear open that envelope and anxiously scroll through pages of time entries looking for a total and then … HOLY CRAP is that really just for one month?!
Your lawyer has to do certain things, like show up for court appearances that the judge requires in every case. You can’t control that. Your lawyer also has to respond to what your spouse and his lawyer do. You may have some say over that, but you can’t totally control this either.
A lot more goes into the cost of your case than what the judge requires and what the other side does. The biggest factor in the rest of that cost is you. Specifically, how you communicate with your lawyer and the direction you give her in managing your case.
Now that you know this, what can you do to lower your bill? Here are 5 ways to stretch the dollars you spend on your divorce without jeopardizing your position:
1. Send fewer, more organized communications.
You’re going to need to tell your lawyer many things. But when it comes to cost, how you tell her is more important than what you tell her. It’s as simple as doing the math.
Divorce lawyers bill by the hour, most likely in 1/10ths of an hour (6 minute increments). Even if it takes less than 6 minutes to do a task, you’ll be billed 1/10th of an hour. If you send your lawyer an email that takes 2 minutes to read, and you do that on 20 different days, that’s 2 hours of legal time just reading emails.
There’s a better way. Write out your thoughts in one document, collect them for a few days, then send 1 email organized by topic (numbered paragraphs are great). I’d bet that email will NOT take 2 hours to read!
2. Don’t keep having the same conversation.
If I had $1 for every time I’ve talked to a client about the same thing over and over again…oh wait, I do. I get it. You’re scared and this is complicated. It’s on your mind every minute of the day. But having the same discussion with your lawyer on Friday that you had on Wednesday and twice last week won’t change anything. It'll hike up your bill. Find a better ear for those repeat conversations, like your best friend or your dog.
Side note: If the reason you keep repeating yourself is because you feel your lawyer isn’t listening to you, or isn’t taking proper action in your case, tell her. If the situation doesn’t improve after that, then it’s one of two things: you’re focused on items that don’t matter or you need a different lawyer.
3. Only talk to your lawyer about legal issues.
Divorce affects just about every aspect of your life – your emotions, your money, your children, your health, and on and on. And while you need to deal with each aspect of it, you can’t deal with all of that through your lawyer. Your lawyer isn’t your therapist. She’s not your doctor or even your friend. Here are suggestions for things you can - and should - do on your own to help get you through this time.
My advice? Talk to your lawyer about what impacts your legal case, period. (That’s still a lot). If you’re not sure what that is, ask. Save the rest for the person who’s actually equipped to deal with it, like your therapist for your emotions. Not only will you save money, but you’ll better take care of yourself by getting help from the right person for each type of need. Check out these tips about finding the right therapist for you.
4. Use your legal dollars wisely.
Let’s say you don’t trust your spouse. You’re certain he’s hiding money, but you have no idea where or how. You ask your lawyer to request documents from every bank in the State of Wisconsin and depose his best friend and 3 of your neighbors, all in hopes they’ll know something. None of this reveals anything so you tell your lawyer to keep searching.
Look, you might be right. Your spouse could be hiding something. But how much you spend looking for this info has to be tied in some way to how much you can afford to spend -- and to the likelihood that you’ll actually uncover something big enough to justify the effort.
Don’t spend $5,000 trying to track down $3,000. It’s not about right or wrong, or whether you’re entitled to know. If you can’t afford it, you just can’t. Make wise decisions and ask your lawyer her opinion about what actions are and aren’t worth it in your case.
5. Review your bills.
You wouldn’t pay your credit card bill without checking the charges. You shouldn’t pay your legal bills without reviewing them either. No ethical lawyer will knowingly bill you for something incorrectly, but lawyers are humans. We make mistakes.
If you see an entry on your bill that doesn’t look like it was for your case, or that looks too high for the work done, say something. You have a right to understand not only the work being done, but how you’re being charged for it. It’s also really eye-opening to see exactly how your dollars were spent. If you see entries that say “multiple emails with client” or “talked to client for 3rd time about xyz,” you might want to re-read tips #1 and #2 above.