How much will my divorce, paternity, modification, civil suit cost? I am asked this question by every prospective client to whom I talk. It is a question I cannot answer. If you have a flat fee type of case (criminal defense for example), a lawyer tells you the flat fee. If you have a contingent fee case (personal injury for example), you usually have no upfront costs. The main question in those cases is how much will you gain for your injury or loss. In my area of work; divorce, custody, paternity, modification, family law, civil litigation, we work at an hourly rate. Most lawyers, including me, ask for an upfront retainer. We ask that the retainer be replenished when it is nearly exhausted. Of course, I do not speak for all lawyers.
Here is why I cannot answer the question. There are too many variables. For example, some clients contact me with questions every day, by email, text or phone call. They feel anxious, unsure, and full of questions. They require more of my time than clients who contact me rarely. The opposing party and their lawyer are other significant variables upon which I cannot put a cost. Some cases are very hostile and contentious. If this is true about the opposing party and their lawyer, more motions, court hearings and drama are sure to come. This type of conduct is more costly. Other cases may be very complex (multi-million dollar divorces, businesses to be valued, etc.), but if everyone is cooperative and there is little emotion in the legal process, the cost is much less. On the other side, cases that may appear small (very little to no assets, perhaps even no children) can become very expensive over pets, or an argument of principle. Over the course of my career thus far, I can think of many cases that were very expensive, required a lot of my time and energy, were very emotional and hard for my client, for reasons I could not fathom at first glance. It comes down to basic human nature and how that translates into my time on a case.
There are so many different legal routes from point A (when I meet with a client) to point B, when the case is over, and I do not know the path at the beginning. It feels like standing in front of a thick forest, one that I know and am very familiar with, but one that has too many angles and paths, not to mention the trees that can be used, to climb up, over, and through, to use one analogy. Sometimes the route is direct, with little cause for courtroom action, litigation in the form of motions, pleadings, hearings and the like. Other times, the route has so many unforeseen twists and turns, you would not believe the stories, even if I were to lay them out for you. Some cases take years. Some months. I understand that this is not always comforting for people to hear when they first meet with lawyers. Most people do not trust lawyers in the first place, so naturally this is a frequently addressed topic of conversation.
What you can do is look for a lawyer willing to go over this with you. I have found it very helpful to openly talk about this topic, and from there address matters as they come. Usually any individual issue has many possible ways of resolving. Sometimes no response is recommended because things might actually fall in place on its own. This is less expensive. Sometimes mediation or communication is a possible tactic, and sometimes litigation is necessary, litigation being the most expensive route of all. If you have a sense that you have some control over how and what choices you and your lawyer make, this will make for a better experience. You cannot control the opposing party or their lawyer(s). You must understand this to understand why I, and most lawyers, cannot tell you how much your case will ultimately cost. If you are talking to a lawyer that seems to know everything about your case, how the other side will be, what the Judge will decide (the classic “know it all”), this is probably not a good lawyer to retain. It is not honest. No lawyer, or human being, can know the future or choices that other people will make.
You can control your side of the action, assuming you have a lawyer you can talk with, understand, and make informed decisions on strategy and moving forward at any given time. This is the best cost control you have. Approach your choice of lawyer with all of this in mind, and my hope is that this perspective will help you, and perhaps reduce your legal cost.