A small-town lawyer once said, “A lawyer’s time and advice are his stock in trade.” Yes, even back in the day, lawyers had to justify their fees to clients. This particular lawyer got a better gig, he became President of the United States.
No doubt, if Abe Lincoln were in practice today, he’d still be sharing his now famous observation with clients. As long as there are lawyers, there will be clients, and friction over legal fees.
Here’s what I think.
In modern family law, a lawyer is many things: advocate, counselor, broker, collaborator, and a general concierge through the confusing and often frightening ordeal that is a divorce or custody case. Given the abundance of online forms and oversaturation of lawyers, there is a downward pressure on fees family lawyers can expect to receive.
I’ve always said that, at Schreier & Housewirth, we don’t compete on price; we compete on value; that is, giving clients the benefit of our experience, expertise, and reputation at a reasonable cost. If a client hires a lawyer based on cost alone, this suggests to me that either he or she is not that invested in the outcome of his or her family law dispute, or is looking to get something for nothing. Can you guess which is right?
Believe me, if you’re in family court and your case is contested, you care deeply about the outcome. Clients who believe they are going to get everything they want out of a lawyer “on the cheap” are the ones who end up spending more when they end up in a fee dispute with their first lawyer and have to hire a second lawyer. As legendary retailer Stanley Marcus once said, “Quality is remembered long after price is forgotten.”
So, what is a retainer fee and why are you asked to pay one in divorce and custody cases? Simply put, a retainer is an advance payment for legal fees and costs to be incurred in your case. At Schreier & Housewirth, we bill against your retainer payment as we represent you in your case. We try to quote a fair retainer based on the nature of your case and the anticipated level of conflict.
Time is money in the legal business. The cost of any case depends on the level of resistance from your adversary.
When thinking about retainer fees, consider this example… You take your car to the shop for a repair. The shop calls and your car is ready. The mechanic tells you what you owe, but you can’t pay. Fine, no worries, the mechanic will keep your car until you do pay. Otherwise, he will assert a mechanic’s lien and sell your car in payment of his fees.
A lawyer, on the other hand, has no collateral. If work performed on your case exceeds your retainer payment, the lawyer must count on the client to honor his or her commitment to pay. Yikes! I’m going to suggest that most family law attorneys recover 60 to 70 percent of their billings.
There must be a better way.
At Schreier & Housewirth, we encourage an honest, up-front, conversation about legal fees in your divorce or custody case. Clear communication, creates realistic expectations, which yields loyal and satisfied clients. That’s how we built this law practice.