The Revolutionary Simplicity of Flat-Fees in Family Law
I’ve spent my career working with people in one of the most challenging moments of their lives: divorce.
Clients come to me with terrible burdens of stress and worry, often completely overwhelmed and unsure of what their future life—not to mention finances—is going to look like. As the person whose job it is to guide them through their divorce, one of the responsibilities of their lawyer should always be to provide a sense of perspective and stability.
This can be difficult, however, when it comes to compensation. Because let’s face it: a divorce isn’t usually just a “challenging moment,” but a long and complicated process.
When, as is generally the case, a lawyer’s fees are based on an hourly billing structure and are directly tied to the duration of the client’s divorce and the amount of time spent on all of the thorny details involved, both lawyer and client can lose control of the cost.
As if the process itself wasn’t stressful enough, no one can tell you exactly how long a divorce will take. Every extra week and month adds to your bill.
This, in turn, can contribute significantly to the financial uncertainty that divorce creates, surpassing whatever estimates your lawyer might have given you from the outset.
It is precisely because of how difficult it is to predict the length of a divorce that almost all firms charge by the hour. That way, every lawyer knows he or she is being compensated for practically every minute of work.
According to this payment structure, however, the client assumes an unnecessary amount of risk and misaligns her interests with those of her lawyer.
As I said before, I have always felt it is my job to provide a sense of comfort to my clients during the difficult times of divorce, and the best way I can find to do this is through financial certainty. That is why my firm offers a unique flat-fee billing structure, one that’s available almost nowhere else.
According to this structure, you get the total cost of your divorce up front, rather than waiting to the end to find out just how much you owe. I have found, along with my clients, that this is by far the easiest and least stressful method.
More than this, however, it’s the most logical billing system and it comes with a host of obvious and not-so-obvious benefits. This is a win-win scenario only an experienced lawyer operating according to this payment structure can provide.
Avoid Unwanted Risk by Getting the Total Cost Immediately
The first, simplest, and perhaps most compelling benefit of this payment structure is that you know what you’re getting yourself into from the outset.
You don’t have to look very far to find people with chilling stories about lawyer’s fees spiraling out of control, who ended up with jaw-dropping invoices before the end of their cases were even in sight.
In the midst of dividing assets, when you’re unsure what exactly you will end up with and what will go to your spouse, worrying about how much your lawyer will end up costing you is one thing no one wants to deal with.
And that’s what it all comes down to: lowering risk.
Even competent lawyers who do their best to estimate the cost of hourly billing can’t guarantee a correct approximation. This makes for a ton of added stress, even in the case that things do turn out according to you and your lawyer’s expectations.
When you know what you owe from the start, you can turn your attention to the matter at hand and save yourself the extra fear and worry.
Otherwise, you end up spending the entire process terrified of any potential impasse or bump in the road, a common preoccupation that I have found is itself detrimental to the quick and expeditious completion of a divorce.
Flat Fees Motivate Your Lawyer to Work Quickly and Efficiently
More than simply knowing the cost outright, the important thing about a flat-fee structure is that it aligns the interests of the client and lawyer.
Think about it: under an hourly billing structure, when your lawyer’s compensation is directly tied to the amount of time spent completing your divorce. His or her incentive is always going to be to drag out the process and spend as much time as possible on the details.
In the worst scenarios, when you’re dealing with dishonest attorneys, this can lead to nightmarishly long and complex descriptions of billable time. Hours may be padded here and there and enormous amounts of time spent on all the minute aspects of your case.
According to one Samford study, “A distressingly high percentage of attorneys believe that time-based billing results in bill padding and provides incentives for attorneys to perform unnecessary work.” Two-thirds of those asked said that they knew of specific instances of bill padding.
Beyond such uncommon (but not unheard-of) situations, it’s what hourly billing doesn’t incentivize that really poses the biggest detriment to the timely conclusion of your divorce. According to this billing structure, even excellent and competent lawyers have no reason to feel a sense of urgency or to pursue the most efficient methods.
The hurry that you, as a client, necessarily feel in wanting to regain control over your finances and move forward with your life most likely will not be reflected in the pace at which your lawyer moves. He or she knows that, at the end of the day, the faster they work the shorter the bill.
The flat-fee structure reverses this effect. Flat fee rates encourage attorneys to come up with resourceful, innovative strategies and time-saving mechanisms that work in favor of both their interests and those of their clients.
For our firm, once we’ve accepted your case and agreed to our final compensation, our incentive is to be as productive as possible. The faster and more responsibly we handle your case, the faster we are able to take on new clients.
While a firm using hourly billing may be tempted to spend more time than is necessary at every painstaking step. A flat-fee structure motivates attorneys to move smoothly and fluently through the process.
This streamlined approach can be tremendously helpful as a counterbalance to whatever emotional stress and disorganization our clients are feeling in their lives.
Flat Fees are Better Suited to the Nature of Our Services
Perhaps one of the reasons why hourly billing has this illogical, counterintuitive effect is that it treats legal services too much like a commodity and ignores their real value.
Lawyers aren’t simply offering their clients court visits and paperwork, but a service of enormous, life-changing significance.
The real work of successfully guiding someone through a divorce is poorly reflected in the 15-minute-or-so blocks through which an hourly billing structure accounts for a lawyer’s time. Instead, my firm gives clients a package deal, eschewing the risks and fears associated with most family law agreements and doing its best to put a reasonable, total price on a service whose value is hard to quantify.
Most clients feel that this better suits the service for what it is, and are as a result uniquely able to ask themselves the important question: What is my divorce worth?
The Importance of Preserving Our Clients’ Trust
In my years of experience, I have always found client satisfaction to be much higher under a flat fee.
A big reason for this is that it helps to preserve trust between the client and his or her lawyer and to build a more productive relationship between them that itself contributes to the efficient handling of the case.
On the one hand, the client is freed from the preoccupation with how much time is reasonable or unreasonable in the handling of the case and can instead focus simply on the results their lawyer brings in.
On the other, the lawyer doesn’t have to worry about a suspicious client who is going to second guess the amount of time spent on every email, phone call, etc. The client is free to focus on a positive outcome in the case.
Billable hours often breed outright hostility, which in times of divorce is the last thing any client needs to feel.
The shameful thing is that clients are commonly justified, as mentioned above, in the breakdown of trust, and should indeed be double-checking their firm’s descriptions of billable hours. In the same way that enmity between spouses almost always prolongs the divorce, a lack of trust between client and lawyer will inevitably slow down the process.
Personally, avoiding such problems is one of my most important reasons for choosing and sticking to a flat-fee structure. When I am sure that a client is comfortable with our billing arrangement from the outset, my job becomes so much easier!
Billable Time Can Seriously Damage Communication Between You and Your Lawyer
Hand-in-hand with this improved sense of trust is the open communication between client and lawyer that a flat-fee structure encourages.
Billable hours necessarily give clients pause before deciding to set up a meeting, make a phone call, or even send an email to their lawyer when there is an issue with their case.
An hourly billing structure is often divided into quarter-hour or even tenth-of-an-hour segments, meaning that any such small communication will turn up on a client’s bill. This includes time spent reading emails, responding, answering short phone calls, etc., and as a result, clients are often left with the truly unpleasant and inefficient task of weighing the immediate importance of their question or communication against what it threatens to cost them.
With a flat fee, any such concerns are happily dissolved.
A flat fee means that not only do clients feel at ease contacting their lawyers but that lawyers too do not hesitate before reaching out to their clients, who might otherwise suspect that they are being taken advantage of. It’s nice to know that when I call my clients or set up a meeting they aren’t worried about how much time they spend on the phone or in my office.
This kind of open communication and, again, sense of trust is naturally built-in to the flat-fee billing structure.
Avoid Constant Bills in the Mail
Another great thing about the flat-fee structure we offer?
No constant bills in the mail! Instead of nail-biting invoices arriving every month or few weeks—which through an hourly billing structure can contain enormous and unpleasant charges—you complete your 2 or 3 simple and agreed upon payments and you’re done, that’s it!
Compare that to hourly billing, which is bound to hit you with not one but a series of surprises.
Because that’s the thing about billable time: you’re not simply risking an outsized total cost.
Every billing period you’re dealing with the same fear and uncertainty and are left adding up totals from month to month. Flat fee plans eliminate the guesswork for both you and your lawyer, saving both of you a ton of time, energy, and worry.
Missing One of All Those Payments Can Cost You Big
It’s not uncommon for a client using a billable structure to leave one or several of these many bills unpaid after the conclusion of his or her divorce proceedings.
Upaid fees create significant problems for both client and lawyer. To begin with, these unpaid fees can damage the client’s credit rating, an especially serious problem for someone whose finances and personal assets have changed dramatically coming out of a divorce.
What’s more, no lawyer wants to go tracking down clients for outstanding payments, a process which increases the firm’s overall expenses and, as a result, the price of their services for all clients.
One should remember, too, that the administrative cost of recovering payments is charged directly to the client. Having to repeatedly follow-up on late payments under a billable structure is a common and time-consuming problem for attorneys, who struggle constantly to balance such administrative work with the meaningful part of their job.
With a flat-fee structure, clients are far more likely to pay the full amounts on time, and no one has to keep track of every payment as they add up over the course of a divorce.
The Expensive and Inessential Administrative Costs that Billable Time Produces
Beyond the complicated task of tracking down late payments, organizing and facilitating an hourly billing system requires a significant amount of administrative work.
All of this only serves to increase the overall expense of any given case, as it is included in lawyer’s fees and charged directly to the client.
For example, a lawyer who uses hourly billing necessarily has to keep detailed accounts of how he or she spends their time. And while accounting for time is perhaps the biggest and most expensive of these tasks, it is only one aspect of the much larger administrative burden that grows out of an hourly billing structure, the cost of which is transferred entirely to clients.
Not only is all this an expensive and inefficient use of time during a case, but in a standard hourly billing agreement, it is often something that clients don’t entirely understand.
The average client doesn’t have the advantage of a personal familiarity with the internal mechanics of a law firm, much less those in particular of whichever firm they have representing them. An hourly structure is inherently complex, and as a result, clients end up being billed for work they never expected to be part of their case.
This complexity alone makes for added suspicion and an increasingly hostile relationship between lawyers and clients and is often the beginning of a breakdown in trust.
A flat-fee billing structure is much easier to understand, and by definition cuts out these unnecessary administrative costs.
This is a win-win for both clients and firms: clients save money in fees and firms are better able to allocate their resources towards what matters—your case.
There is nothing mysterious or tricky about a flat-fee structure, and no one is going to charge you for time spent keeping track of how much you owe (a concept that has been known to infuriate even the most reasonable client).
We Cut Out the Risk Free of Charge
Usually, the reduced risk that a structure like ours offers clients would be reflected in an increase in cost.
Firms or companies with similar deals would charge for the security and comfort of not having to worry about costs spiraling out of control. Our firm, however, operates according to the belief that a flat-fee should be the standard payment structure of any experienced attorney, and as a result, includes no such hidden fee.
It’s simple: we provide you with an estimate of what your case will cost and break it down into manageable payments. We’re not going to charge more just because our payment structure guarantees peace of mind and freedom from the fear that hourly billing can cultivate.
It’s true that according to this structure the firm itself accepts the risk of a case hitting unforeseen roadblocks and requiring more work than was expected, but in general, we put our faith in the estimates of our experienced attorneys.
Any unanticipated work is simply part of the package deal: if the case takes longer than expected, that’s our problem, not yours!
Flat Fees Exclusive to the Most Experienced Attorneys
Even a divorce case that progresses without interruption from each step to the next is very hard to estimate in terms of how long it will last.
There are no standard approximations for how long mediation will take, and no way to be sure how many hearings or filing motions any given case will require. Working out a reasonable estimate is therefore the responsibility of a very experienced attorney with years of comparative cases under his or her belt to use as reference.
That is another reason why most firms won’t give you a flat fee—putting together a realistic estimate that works in favor of both parties requires a level of expertise that most simply don’t have.
What’s more, restructuring a practice from billable time to flat rates is a long and difficult process for any firm and requires lawyers to completely change the way they think about their time, allocation of resources, and payment. These roadblocks and requirements make developing a flat-fee structure seem too daunting a task for most firms.
The great benefit to you is peace of mind.
With our firm, this expertise is part of the package deal and the flat-fee structure is on the table for the client’s benefit.
This is a completely unique and innovative offer. Flat fees are revolutionary in the field of family law and are not even being considered by most firms because of the risk it poses to them should they underestimate the amount of work they’ll spend on your case.
Indeed, the unique nature of our fee structure has occasionally given clients pause. They wonder why—if it’s so efficient and successful—other firms don’t follow suit. It’s important, therefore, to understand that a flat-fee structure is no easy thing for a firm to put together and is especially risky for lawyers without the experience to make consistently accurate estimates.
Choosing a flat fee is going to save you a huge burden of stress and instability at what is already an emotionally and financially unstable time. All clients paying by the hour struggle to parse through complicated descriptions of what exactly they are paying for, a process that can leave anyone thoroughly unsatisfied.
The bottom line is that people outside of the legal profession, especially those in a time of crisis, should not have to worry about all the frustrating minutiae of their case. You’re paying to have your problems solved, not to have new ones added to your plate.
According to our structure, the onus is on us to get the work done the right way. Most firms would rather stick to billable time because it’s easier and safer for them, which makes sense. Ours, however, is different.
Fat fees are a win-win for both the client and the attorney. Wouldn't you be relieved to know the total cost of settling your case right from the start?