How much is this going to cost me: why attorney fees for divorce and family law cases are so hard to predict: Part II

Yesterday we talked about how family law/divorce case fees are hard to predict because every case is different. Today, we’re going to talk about how the other side makes things unpredictable as well.

In discussing how we approach our family law cases, we made it clear that we look at each case individually, and determine strategy depending on what that case, that client, and that specific issue requires. Generally-speaking, you’d think that, with time and experience, we’d be able to make estimates or educated guesses on the total cost of a family law or divorce case. Unfortunately, there’s another variable in these cases that throws a wrench into that theory, and sadly, blows it all apart: the other side.

We don’t know what the other side is going to do.

When we talk to a client, we talk about the current relationship between the parties and potential reactions to whatever action we’re contemplating. We talk about tone for declarations and proposals. We talk about the need to be gentle where needed, and more aggressive in other situations, where appropriate. We talk about options the other side might agree to, and what are more likely to be sticking points. Our goal is to get the result that our clients wants, and part of that is understanding how to present ourselves and our case to get that result from the other side or from the court. But that’s just step one.

Ultimately, though, we don’t know what the other side is going to do.

We’ll present our argument – whether it’s to the court or to the other side directly (or most often, both at the same time in a Request for Order) – in a manner that we think will maximize our chances of getting what we want. But then it’s time for the other side to respond to our request.

Initially, it’s a pretty fair assumption to make that the other side will get some advice in determining what to do. They most likely won’t respond, agreeing or not, based on just conversations between the spouses or what they think they know about divorce or family law. They’ll look for advice. That advice could take the form of talking to a family member or friend, whose advice could be spot on, but is more likely to be utterly inaccurate. The advice could be in the form of internet research, which could be as helpful as it is harmful. The advice could take the form of consultations with an attorney or several attorneys, each of whom could have different approaches or advice. The advice could, of course, be the hiring and retaining of an attorney for the other party, which is most often what happens.

Before we move on, I want to make one point clear. Regardless of whether the other side has a great attorney or not-so-great attorney or no attorney, we must respond to what they do. So if they file unnecessary motions or react explosively to every little thing, then we have to respond. If they have an attorney who is hard to get in touch with – or they don’t have an attorney and are hard to reach – then we have to work harder (i.e. spend more time and money) to get things done. If the other side hires one of those aggressive attorneys we discussed yesterday, and send over a mountain of discovery on a simple case, we still have to respond. In this way, the actions of the other side have a lot to do with how much any case costs. In fact, each side contributes almost equally in determining how much a family law case costs. The difference is that we can only have any control over what our side does.

So, by not knowing – or having any way of knowing – what the other side is going to do, we just can’t make any predictions as to the total cost of any of our divorce cases. No one can. We don’t know if the advice they get will be good or bad. We don’t know if they’re going to hire an attorney who is both responsive and reasonable – like we are – and thus allow us to keep fees down. We don’t know if they’re going to hire someone who will do everything they can to drive up the fees. We don’t know if they won’t hire anyone, and will make mistakes or emotional decisions, being unreasonable & delaying the process because they can’t handle it or don’t know what to do.

All we can do is control what our side does, and keep in close contact with our clients to be sure our approach is consistent with what the client and case needs. Tomorrow, in the final Part III of this series, we’ll talk about ways to keep attorney costs down.

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