What steps can I take to minimize my legal expenses?

Minimizing expenses requires an understanding of how lawyers charge for their services. The overwhelming majority of lawyers charge for their time at an hourly rate. They keep daily records of time spent on each of their clients. Typically these records are divided into minimum billing intervals. Every time your lawyer answers a phone call from you, a member of your family (with your permission), or your spouse’s lawyer, works on documents or correspondence relating to your case, participates in negotiations on your behalf, prepares for trial, or appears in court, the time so spent will be charged to you at this hourly rate. When you save your lawyer time, you save yourself money. Here are some steps you can take to minimize your legal costs:

1. Be organized. Your lawyer will need an accurate picture of your financial situation. Try to assemble a complete collection of relevant documentation and organize it coherently. Important documentation includes personal and business federal and state income tax returns, bank statements, mortgages, loan statements, stock option plans, brokerage accounts, employee withholding statements (W-2’s), 1099 forms, pay stubs, and pension and other retirement statements. Other important documents include financial statements prepared in connection with loan applications, closing documents relating to the purchase and sale of a home, deeds, title certificates, registration statements for vehicles and boats, insurance policies and premium statements, and documentation of loans and gifts family members and others. Your lawyer will also require information regarding trusts, inheritances, collectibles, and collections, frequent flyer accounts, and reward programs, rights in intellectual property such as copyrights, patents, and trademarks, and the fruits of the creative process, such as publishing a novel.

Your lawyer will also need information about your family expenses. Assemble a file documenting expenses such as rent, house payments, car payments, household maintenance, utilities, tuition, child care, medical care, insurance (life, homeowners, auto, etc.), and any other significant, recurring expenses. For most families, checking account and credit card records will be critical to establishing a history of these expenses. It is wise to begin this process of documenting your expenses and net worth and to obtain copies of relevant financial papers at the first suggestion of marital trouble. Financial records may be maintained on your computer. Later, when conflict is more open, your spouse may attempt to hinder your access to this important information.

It is also helpful to prepare a written summary and chronology of the relationship between you and your spouse. Don’t withhold information. Your lawyer should know any negative information about you than to be caught off guard as your case progresses.

2. Keep notes and records of your discussions with your attorney. If you have a question for your lawyer, jot it down on a notepad kept for that purpose. If possible, resist calling your lawyer until you have several issues to discuss. Take notes of your telephone and personal conferences with your lawyer and record the time of your calls. This will prevent you from repeatedly seeking the same information. Your businesslike manner and vigilance will communicate to your lawyer that you hold her or him accountable for the time billed to your account.

Your lawyer should send you a copy of all correspondence, and legal documents produced or received in connection with your case and keep you posted about all major developments and key deadlines. Maintain your records in an orderly file. In addition to providing a resource for you to understand the legal process you are participating in and work more efficiently with your lawyer. Keeping such a file could facilitate a decision to change lawyers. Should that become advisable?

3. Inquire whether your spouse will be required or requested to pay all or a portion of your legal fees. Recently enacted legislation has amended Domestic Relations Law § 273 to create a rebuttable presumption that counsel fees shall be awarded to the less moneyed spouse. This is intended to create equal access to the legal process so that the financially disadvantaged spouse may assert and protect their rights. This legislation provides that an order for counsel fees may be granted to ensure that the less moneyed spouse be placed on a “level playing field” at the very beginning of the case or during the case. In the past, the burden was placed on the party seeking counsel fees to demonstrate why awarding the fees would be in the interests of justice. With the recent passage of this amendment, it is left to the moneyed spouse to show why it would not be in the interest of justice to award attorney’s fees. However, the amount and timing of the awards are at the discretion of the court. Accordingly, neither you nor your lawyer can rely on them with certainty. The extent to which your attorney is willing to accept court awarded fees as payment for services should be discussed during the initial interviewing process and specified in the retainer agreement.

4. Ask for estimates of the costs of major legal services or strategies. Before insisting upon or giving permission for a major legal initiative such as filing a motion or hiring costly experts, engage your lawyer in a “cost/benefit” analysis of the proposed action. Each such decision should be addressed from a business perspective. It usually doesn’t make sense for you and your spouse to pay your lawyers $1,000 to argue over property worth $500. If you and your spouse insist on retaining particular property after divorce, the disputed property may be sold and the proceeds of sale divided, or you and your spouse may “trade-off” one or more items of property for the desired property. Resist the temptation to act emotionally or seek personal gratification by taking aggressive or punitive steps not likely to improve your situation materially.

5. Do not seek non-legal services from your lawyer. Your lawyer may be a source of good practical advice, but he or she is usually not trained as a psychotherapist or money manager. It is wise to ask your lawyer for a referral to a trained professional or seek such referrals from other qualified sources. Please see the Resources and Readings Section at the end of this Q&A for further resources.

6. Educate yourself about the legal issues of your case. Early on in your case, your lawyer should provide you with a copy of relevant portions of the New York Domestic Relations Law and discuss the law with you.

7. Keep in mind that there is liberal “disclosure” in matrimonial cases. You have the right to obtain copies of your spouse’s financial records of assets and liabilities, including business records.

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