Whenever misfortune strikes and necessity requires me to fork over any hard-earned money to a professional (such as a plumber, electrician, or other contractor) you can bet I will follow my rule of three bids. That is, I take a little time researching and calling potential professionals. I ask a lot of questions and I request a cost estimate from a minimum of three. This relatively simple rule has saved me countless mistakes, thousands of dollars, and probably a fair amount of sanity too. For example, one spring an
underground sewer pipe leading from the front of my house to the street unexpectedly collapsed causing the drains in my basement to back up. I needed skilled help—and fast. I called three plumbers, per my rule, and got estimates. Each plumber had a slightly different suggestion on how to fix my problem and the costs associated with each suggestion ranged from $1,500 all the way to $15,000; one plumber said my backyard would need to be dug up! You can learn a lot from these consultations/estimates: both about your own situation and about the professional you may potentially hire.
It occurred to me, if this rule works so well with contractor-type professionals, why wouldn’t it work for lawyers? Lawyers are, after all, a type of contract professional. If misfortune strikes in your life and you need to hire skilled legal help, before you sign any contract or pay large retainer deposit, do some preliminary homework first by following these simple tips.
1. Get Three Bids
Why get three bids? There is only one reason for this: you will learn a lot. Not all professionals are the same. Not all professionals are motivated by the same things. Just as I could have easily spent 900% more on a sewer pipe replacement, so, too, can you potentially spend way more money than you probably should on legal work. In my experience, the cost of legal work varies significantly from firm to firm. Some attorneys charge their usual hourly rate just for sitting in their car and driving to and from court or mediation. Others are more scrupulous. Utah has an abundance of lawyers. Research family law lawyers in your area, ask friends and family members for names and/or recommendations, and generate a list of at least three (3) available attorneys.
Once you have gathered some names, schedule a consultation, ask them questions, and get an estimate. Many family law attorneys in Utah give free or low-cost consultations (such as $25, $35, or $50 for a one hour consultation). Unless you have a lot of disposable money, do not pay an attorney his or her ordinary billable rate for an initial consultation, as you could easily spend $200 or more for this.
2. Ask for a Roadmap/Plan and Estimate
The attorney you hire should have a roadmap in mind of how they intend to accomplish your divorce goals. Ask him or her what that plan entails. Will you be going for temporary orders? Will you be doing a lot of discovery and gathering significant amounts of financial documentation and evidence? Should you pursue an expensive custody evaluation or try for an informal custody trial? How long will the attorney need to draft initial documents and when will the respondent be served? Who will you primarily deal with—the attorney or the paralegal? Are fees for paralegal services charged differently from the fees charged for attorney services? How far in the process will your retainer fee likely take you before a second retainer fee is needed? And what happens when the initial retainer is used?
Divorce is a journey and proper planning and strategic thinking are necessary elements for successful passage.
3. Compare Costs
Ask each attorney you interview questions about their fees:
Make a spreadsheet with all the categories you intend to compare and enter the data as you go. Once you have interviewed the last attorney, you should have fairly complete comparison points at your fingertips.
4. Ask Yourself Whose Personality is the Best Fit for You.
This last point cannot be highlighted enough. You will probably end up spending a lot of time (and money) with the lawyer you eventually hire. You will be negotiating emotional disputes and other thorny matters. Having an attorney you are comfortable with and who you feel is approachable is most important. A lawyer does, after all, represent you. Make sure whoever you hire is someone you can work with, understand, and respect.
Following these simple steps will provide you with a little education and a little confidence to move forward in your divorce. The more questions you ask and the more information you collect, the more empowered you are to make good, reliable decisions.