Understanding Attorney Fees

It should come as no surprise that if you hire a lawyer he or she is going to want to be paid.

Billable hours:

Lawyers in family law cases, such as divorce (dissolution of marriage) and paternity, covering the gamut of issues:  parenting and time sharing, equitable distribution, alimony, child support, typically charge by the hour.  Hourly rates for a family lawyer can run from between $175 to $750.  Billable hour lawyers keep track of their time and send bills periodically to the client.  The lawyer typically gets paid a non refundable retainer to make an appearance in the case – $3500 – $7500 – and, in additional, holds money in his trust account from the client to cover the lawyer’s time and billing and costs and the lawyer pays himself as bills are generated.  When the money is close to running out he will ask the client to replenish the trust account, i.e.  “Please send another $5000.” This way the lawyer does not have to worry about getting paid.

All courts throughout Florida have short matter hearings during the week and the many lawyers attend those hearings asking to be allowed to withdraw from the representation on account of irreconcilable differences with the client.  Most often “irreconcilable differences” is code for not getting paid.  The judge will allow the lawyer to withdraw.  The client will then be on his or her own and either a new lawyer hired, who will want to be paid to learn the case and to proceed, or the client proceeds on his or her own, what’s called appearing pro se.  The lawyer owns the file, which is his work product.  Any papers or things that belong to the client will be returned, including any unused part of the money held in trust.  If the client wants a copy of the file he will need to pay for copies, if he doesn’t already have copies, or unless the lawyer will make copies for him at no cost, although he does not have to.

Hiring a billable hour lawyer can get very expensive.

Flat attorney fee:

A flat attorney fee is usually a set fee, oftentimes paid in advance or over time, to represent the client throughout the case.  It is a good idea for the client, who will know exactly what the representation will cost up front and not worry about periodic bills or replenishing trust account funds.  It is a more risk proposition for the lawyer who may think the case will take a certain amount of time to bring to a conclusion but if it takes more he will be responsible to complete the work regardless.  Only lawyers with extensive family law and courtroom experience should consider taking family law cases for flat attorney fees as they have had enough experience to really gauge the time it will take and fees to keep his office open and staff paid in order to do a good job for the client.

Limited representation attorney fees:

The Florida Supreme Court by rule now allows lawyers in family law cases to file limited appearances on behalf of the client for specific discrete tasks.  This type of representation, sometimes called unbundled legal services, is intended to help relieve the trial courts from the burden of so many unrepresented parties.  Studies have shown that up to 80% of family cases have one or both parties without counsel at some point during the case.  Without counsel the case bogs down, parties and court staff are frustrated and it is not uncommon for incorrect results to obtain.  If a court case can be broken down into a bundle of available services – discrete tasks – and the client hires a lawyer to perform some or even one of those discrete unbundled tasks, the Supreme Court feels the client is better of with that limited representation than totally on his own.

A limited representation requires a written limited legal services agreement between the lawyer and client that spells out the discrete task(s) the lawyer has agreed to provide and the fee the client agrees to pay.  The client should be explained and understand the scope of the limited representation and that it does not cover all things that may go on in a case.

Once the limited legal services agreement is signed, the lawyer will draft a notice of limited appearance and consent of client which will advise the court and any other party in the case of the nature and extent of the limited representation.  The client signs the consent and the notice gets filed with the court and served on any other party in the case.

The rule requires that all papers filed by the opposition be served not only on the client but also on his limited representation lawyer, even if the papers relate to a matter beyond the scope of the limited representation.  This way the limited representation lawyer is kept in the loop, may explain the new matter and give the client the opportunity to hire him for additional discrete tasks.

If some matter is set for hearing that is beyond the scope of the limited representation and the client does not want additional services then the lawyer would file a notice of non attendance.  At the conclusion of the limited representation the lawyer would file his notice of termination of limited representation and the representation will be concluded.

Although there is paperwork involved, this type of limited representation has many benefits for both the client and lawyer.  The lawyer is not interested in prolonging the case.  Rather, he is paid a flat fee for a discrete task and it would behoove him to resolve the discrete task as quickly and efficiently as possible.  Dragging it out for a while would be of no benefit to him, unlike a billable hour lawyer.  Just the opposite.  Many clients prefer the limited representation since they pay for discrete, well defined tasks as they go and for as much “justice” as they can afford.

Shifting attorney fees:

If the client is without funds to hire a lawyer or has limited funds and can afford only part of the lawyer’s fees and if the spouse has the ability to contribute to those attorney fees and costs, the law specifically provides for an award of those fees on both a temporary and final basis.  The idea is that a client without money ought not be put in a disadvantageous situation in her divorce case because of lack of funds and if the husband has money, he ought not be able to take advantage and pay for good counsel while the wife languishes on her own or with someone less experienced.

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