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Is your attorney looking out for you or his/her wallet?

A client just came into my office a domestic violence matter involving her boyfriend.  She explained how she got divorced last year so I assumed she didn’t have an attorney since she was in my office.  However, she did have an attorney that handles a fair number of divorce cases in Monmouth County.  So, I had to ask, why can’t he help you?  The answer:  “because he ripped me off and he’s a scumbag”.  Not the first time I’ve heard that about him.  She explained that she had a very simple case with everything worked out.  However, this attorney somehow charged her $8000 for a 3 month divorce case!  My guess is that I could have handled the case for under $2000.  Regardless, she clearly knows that she was ripped off and unfortunately, her story is not rare. 

What this attorney does not realize is that while he might have made some nice money, he will never make a dime off of this client.  Not only that, but she will clearly bad mouth him to everyone she knows.  I try to create clients for life even it costs me money.  I believe that my job is to get the best result for my client even if it does not put money in my pocket.

For example, I have been representing a client with a number of related issues.  I was going to represent her in the divorce but we would have had to wait months if not over a year for her to have even the proper retainer put together because her husband was going to cause World War 3.  No matter who handled the case, it was going to be expensive.  This just couldn’t wait.  Thus, I found an attorney that is affiliated with an organization that can help her.  As a result, the divorce case will cost her next to nothing and she will be able to get divorced much quicker.  I lost out on a lot of money but my client is in a better position.  In my opinion, that is my real job: to help my clients.  Quite often, it puts money in my pocket.  However, sometimes it doesn’t.  Either way, I love my career and I feel great knowing that I made a difference in someone’s life.

Am I the only attorney that feels like this?   Obviously no, but when looking for an attorney, I suggest you try to determine what your attorney is concerned with, you or his/her wallet?

Does divorce mediation in New Jersey really save you money?

Before I was an attorney, I was a mediator for 2 years.  It was a great experience and I am a better attorney as a result of the experience.  However, I am rather upset by all of the “divorce mediation” springing up everywhere as some type of alternative to divorce.  In my opinion, it is not a good alternative to the divorce process and may actually make your case more expensive and time consuming.

Is it really an alternative to divorce?

There is a big public misconception that divorce has to be expensive, drawn out and in essence, a generally horrible experience.  Divorce Mediation is marketed as a way to bypass all of that but of course, relies on people thinking that this misconception is true.  There is  no one way to get divorced.  I can get people divorced in two to three months for $2000 or less in some cases.  Some people spend six figures and it takes years.  The timing and the cost of a divorce depends upon you and your spouse.  Thus, it does not have to be expensive. 

Besides the cost aspect, divorce mediation also assumes that there are no other alternatives to a divorce trial.  However, a divorce trial is very rare.  Almost every case settles.  One of the reasons most cases settle (besides lack of time for court to try the cases) is that there are a number of mediations and other ADR processes built in to the divorce process.  In addition, your attorney is always free to set up mediation sessions with the other side with or without the assistance of an actual mediator.  When it is without a mediator, we refer to this as a four-way conference.  During the four-way, both sides along with their respective attorneys discuss all of the issues in an attempt to settle all or just part of the issues in the case.

Regardless of how and when the case settles, your attorney will be in a position to quickly put through the settlement.  When you go through mediation and you have settled the cases, you still have to start the divorce case from the beginning.  This could delay the case.

Who will fight for you?

A mediator cannot represent you or your spouse.  Thus, you may lose out on key legal advice that could cost you for many years.  For example, what if there is two ways to do something?  One way will cost you more money, the other will not.  What if the mediator thinks it is better for your spouse to go the way that costs you more money even if does not mean less money for them?  What if you want to draw up an iron clad agreement that will be in your favor?  Who is looking out for you?  Don’t think that your spouse’s attorney will pick up on all of these little issues.  I’ve seen some very experienced attorneys leave money on the table by not asking for certain things.  With a mediator, he/she may not raise these issues if they are in your favor or they may raise them for the benefit of your spouse. 

Can an attorney speed up your divorce?

While there is no one way to mediate a case, I’ve seen some mediations that took about 10 to 12 different mediation sessions.  However, when I have represented clients and I have been in some type of mediation, it rarely takes more than one session which generally lasts one to three hours.  Why?  Attorneys know how to cut through the BS.  During the initial consultation with my clients, I am already getting an idea for how the client wants to settle the case and how I think the case should settle.  I explain my thinking to my clients from the start so they are prepared to move forward.  As a result, the sessions go much quicker.  With a mediation, I am sure the mediator has to discuss every possible option on each issue which can take some time.

The best of both worlds

The purpose of this blog is to demonstrate that there are attorneys out there that combine the best of both worlds.  You can get an attorney that will fight for you without breaking the bank.  In addition, for the same price as a mediation, hiring the right attorney can get you divorced faster and with a better settlement agreement that is drawn up correctly.  If the mediation fails, the right attorney can transition right into litigation mode to fight for you.  No mediator can do that.  So, think twice before you opt for an alleged “divorce alternative” as it may not really be much of an alternative at all.

Do you need a litigator or an agitator?

I know a divorce attorney that many people refer to as a “bulldog”.  The alleged reputation is that this is attorney is tough and will fight for his/her clients.  Based upon my experience with this attorney, this dog is all bark and no bite.  I’ve gone up against him/her and won and it was hardly a challenge.  He/She caved quite quickly.  So why the reputation?  My guess is that it is all about attitude because the attorney talks a good game and is loud and quite obnoxious.  There are other attorneys that have similar traits and I call them agitators.  Regardless of whether or not they have any skill, they don’t seem to use it all the time.  Instead, its all about being loud and causing problems. Some people want their attorney to be a big pain in the ass so they fill a market for a hard-charging attorney.

However, what people don’t realize is that this type of attorney can cause more problems than they solve which can cost you a ton of money.  In my opinion, a true litigator knows that for all of his or her trial skill, quite often, what gets the job done is knowing what to say and how to say it.  Sometimes this is the screaming and yelling that is seen in the movies and on TV but most of the time, it is skilled diplomacy.  As the old saying goes, “you catch more flies with honey”.  So, your attorney can be aggressive and fight for you without upsetting the world in the process.   This is what I do because, in my opinion, I can get better results for less cost to my clients.

The Cost of a New Jersey Divorce

When it comes to divorce, there is one question that everyone asks no matter what their situation is.  How much will my divorce cost?  In other words, how much will your final bill be?  It is a question that is impossible to answer.

Many people get concerned due to the horror stories that they have heard from friends and family about how they spent tens of thousands of dollars in legal fees associated with their New Jersey divorce case.  In my opinion, it is unethical to give any type of estimate since there is no way that I can predict the future as to what you will do and what your spouse and his/her lawyer will do.  There are just too many variables.

If you believe that you need a lawyer for your divorce, then you cannot escape some legal fees.  I tell my clients several things to give them a few ideas about what the final bill may look like.  First, our goal is to get the best possible result for the best possible price.  I think this only makes sense because if you spend $30,000 to fight over something that is worth $10,000, you are out $20,000.  That was not a great result in the end was it?

I also explain that we are looking to set up life-long relationships with our clients.  We want to be the go-to lawyers for all of your legal needs for you and your family.  We can’t exactly do this if you feel that your bill was artificially inflated.  Thus, we have a long-term financial interest in keeping your bill reasonable.

Furthermore, I teach my clients how to save money.  Some of those tips are on this blog.  Who else does this?  Not too many lawyers that I know.  Finally, I explain that a majority of my divorce cases settle for less than what another lawyer may take as an initial retainer.

In the end, while I cannot guarantee a final cost, I can assure them that my office will do whatever it takes to make sure that at the end of the case, they will feel that my representation was not only worth the money, but that the cost was reasonable.  Call our aggressive Somerset County Divorce Lawyers today to discuss your case.

Getting your spouse to pay for your lawyer

It seems like no one ever wants to pay for their own divorce lawyer.  I often get asked if the other spouse can reimburse them for counsel fees.  Since almost every case settles, that is something the other side would have to agree to.  I suggest you speak to your lawyer about that but it rarely happens.

The more important issue is what to do if you cannot afford a lawyer because your spouse is the one with all the money.  In New Jersey, you can file a motion (through a lawyer or on your own) to have the Court order your spouse to pay for your counsel fees subject to equitable distribution.  That means that while the spouse must give you the money now, you may have to pay that back, usually via an offset, at final settlement. 

Of course, if your spouse already has a lawyer, the best course of action may be to have your prospective lawyer call the other lawyer to try to resolve this out of court. 

Finally, in order for all of this  to work, you must show that you cannot afford a lawyer.  Bringing this motion just because your spouse makes more than you may be a very bad idea if it is shown that you have the income/assets to afford representation.

How divorce attorneys bill

Many people come to me after being dissatisfied with the first attorney they chose.  Amazingly, many people have no idea how much money they spent with that attorney as they have not received any updates since the case started (probably one of the many reasons they are in my office).  I am also amazed by the amount of people that have no idea how attorneys bill.  Hopefully, this article will clear up the confusion.

No flat rates

In New Jersey, attorneys cannot charge flat rates for divorce cases (and related matters) because flat rates are non-refundable.  Instead, we set a retainer which is a fancy word for a credit that you have with that attorney’s office.  I tell all of my clients that the retainer is not an estimate.  So, just because I charge one retainer, do not expect that it will exceed it or that it won’t. 

Trust Accounts

Since your retainer is a credit, it is not spent until it is earned.  Thus, all of your initial retainer is put into a trust account.  It is then moved into the business account as it is used up.  At the end of the case, any money left in the trust account is returned to the client.   In New Jersey, it seems that most attorneys start divorce retainers at $5000.  At my firm, we start most retainers at well under $5000 and settle a majority of our cases for under $5,000.

Hourly Rates

Attorneys charge hourly rates for just about everything done on the case.  Hourly rates vary depending on location, experience and other factors.  In New Jersey, the average hourly rate for a divorce attorney is  about $350 an hour.  Time is billed in either tenths of an hour or quarter hours.  For example, a 2 minute phone call is billed at 0.1 while a 6 minute, 30 second call is billed at 0.2.  With quarter hour billing a 2 minute call or a 14 minute call is billed at 0.25.  My firm bills by tenths of an hour.

Assume that all time will be billed. This includes court time, phone calls, reading letters, typing letters, research, etc.  I know it sounds like a lot and it can add up quickly.  However, a good attorney can draw on past experience to get a lot done in a short amount of time.  That is how I am able to settle so many of my cases for under $5,000.

Monthly statements

At my firm, we send out monthly statements for just about every case each month along with a letter to let you know how much of your retainer is remaining.  Thus, my clients do not have to be in the dark with regard to how much their divorce is costing them.  I’ve heard clients tell me that their prior attorneys would never send them a bill until the end of the case when they were surprised with a huge bill that needed to be paid right away!

If you are ready to divorce different, call Jef Henninger, Esq today.  Jef can represent you in any court in New Jersey including New Brunswick, Somerville and Elizabeth.