Posted by Michelle May O’Neil on August 15, 2011

It is not unusual for clients to complain about their attorney fees for a divorce. Below you can find some of the different ways that attorneys charge for handling the divorce process. This may help clients understand the billing process and perhaps what their best option is when it comes down to hiring an attorney.

1. Flat Fee:

A recent blog put forth the idea that the best way to bill is on a flat fee basis. There are merits to flat fee billing if each case can be processed very quickly with few court appearances. In most instances, a flat fee billing is neither fair nor reasonable to the clients or the attorney. If a flat fee is high the client is often charged more for services than is justified in his or her divorce. If the flat fee is low the attorney may not be providing full or adequate services, and if problems arise they often will not be properly dealt with. If the client calls every day knowing that he or she is not going to be billed for it this can encourage a lot of wasted time. In those instances the attorney may not be handling the case as thoroughly as necessary or giving all the time that should be devoted to a particular divorce case. If problems arise and what starts out as a simple case suddenly becomes complicated then the flat fee arrangement can turn into a disaster for everyone.

2. Hourly Billing:

This is the most common fee arrangement. In many practices, an attorney will bill on an hourly basis against a retainer. Some attorneys will take the position that the retainer is just to retain the attorney and then the fees on an hourly basis are billed on top of the retainer. In the past when the economy was good and people weren’t hesitant to spend large sums of money on legal services, that might have made sense. In these tough economic times that makes no sense at all. What is normally done is charge a retainer and then an hourly rate against the retainer. If the case is simple, with few problems, the retainer will cover the entire fee. If problems arise or a lot of time goes into the case, then an hourly rate will be billed once the retainer is used up. Some ways for clients to save money when operating on a retainer basis: maximize time, do not call every day, raise several questions at once and utilize the firm’s support staff or associate in many instances, to maximize the amount of legal services and minimize the fees involved. Hours are normally divided into increments. Some attorneys bill in quarter-hour increments, and others in a third of an hour or a tenth of an hour. Any correspondence or work done on a file is billed upon these time increments. This includes phone calls, e-mails and court appearances. Some attorneys will bill a minimum of one or two hours for court appearances. Driving time is usually billed as well. When you meet with an attorney you should discuss the fees carefully and find out exactly how the billing is done and what is the standard practice for that attorney.

3. Unit Billing:

Some attorneys are using what is called "unit billing," which means that they bill not for time but rather for units. The argument for unit billing is that as an attorney becomes more and more experienced with more work on the computer, work that might have taken an hour or two can be done in a quarter hour or less and therefore unit billing is done because an attorney who is more efficient and experienced should not be punished for his/her efficiency or expertise.

4. Value Added:

Another means of billing which is frowned upon more and more is what is called "value added," where if there are exceptional results on top of the hourly billing or retainer there will be some type of bonus at the end.

As you can see, in family law there are many ways to bill. The critical thing at your initial consultation is to make sure you understand how you will be billed and also make sure that everything is spelled out in writing. You should always have a written contract or retainer agreement with your attorney, so that if there are problems or issues in the future it is all clearly spelled out.

Hat tip to Henry Gornbein for his May 27, 2011 post

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Photo of Michelle O'Neil Michelle O'Neil

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes…

Michelle May O’Neil has 27 years’ experience representing small business owners, professionals, and individuals in litigation related to family law matters such as divorce, child custody, and complex property division. Described by one lawyer as “a lethal combination of sweet-and-salty”, Ms. O’Neil exudes genuine compassion for her client’s difficulties, yet she can be relentless when in pursuit of a client’s goals. One judge said of Ms. O’Neil, “She cannot be out-gunned, out-briefed, or out-lawyered!”

Family Law Specialist

Ms. O’Neil became a board-certified family law specialist by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization in 1997 and has maintained her certification since that time. While representing clients in litigation before the trial court is an important part of her practice, Ms. O’Neil also handles appellate matters in the trial court, courts of appeals and Texas Supreme Court. Lawyers frequently consult with Ms. O’Neil on their litigation cases about specialized legal issues requiring particularized attention both at the trial court and appellate levels. This gives her a unique perspective and depth of perception that benefits both her litigation and appellate clients.

Top Lawyers in Texas and America

Ms. O’Neil has been named to the list of Texas SuperLawyers for many years, 2011-2018, a peer-voted honor given to only about 5% of the lawyers in the state of Texas. In 2014-2018, Ms. O’Neil received the special honor of being named by Texas SuperLawyers as one of the Top 50 Women Lawyers in Texas, Top 100 Lawyers in Texas, and Top 100 Lawyers in DFW. She was named one of the Best Lawyers in America for 2016 and received an “A-V” peer review rating by Martindale-Hubbell Legal Directories for the highest quality legal ability and ethical standards.

Author and Speaker

A noted author, Ms. O’Neil released her second book Basics of Texas Divorce Law in November 2010, with a second edition released in 2013, and a third edition expected in 2015.  Her first book, All About Texas Law and Kids, was published in September 2009 by Texas Lawyer Press. In 2012, Ms. O’Neil co-authored the booklets What You Need To Know About Common Law Marriage In Texas and Social Study Evaluations.  The State Bar of Texas and other providers of continuing education for attorneys frequently enlist Ms. O’Neil to provide instruction to attorneys on topics of her expertise in the family law arena.