Discussing my fees and requiring payment from clients is the part of practicing law I least enjoy.

It is my preference to discuss this thoroughly during the initial conference so it will never again be necessary. You are responsible for the payment of my fee. We may ask the court to require your spouse to pay all or part of your attorney’s fees; however, the payment of those fees as they come due is your responsibility.

You must have a written fee agreement, or at least a written fee memorandum, with any lawyer who represents you. The agreement should define the rights and obligations of both the lawyer and the client and should protect both.

My agreement states the purpose of my representation, which decisions are your prerogative, which decisions are my prerogative, my hourly fee and the amount you must pay at the beginning, how my time is charged, my billing practices and when the fees and costs are due, my responsibility to keep you informed on the progress and status of your case, your right to discharge me as your lawyer, and my right to withdraw from representation.

It is better to have a written fee agreement signed by both the lawyer and the client before any work is done. The problem is that, because the fee agreement reflects the circumstances of your particular case, I cannot prepare the fee agreement until our initial conference. If you hire me at the initial conference, I try to prepare the retainer fee agreement before you leave my office.

One lawyer told a client, “I have a one track mind. I can either worry about your case or my fee.” Two practices help lawyers avoid worrying about fees. Some lawyers require a retainer fee large enough to cover the entire estimated fees and costs. Other lawyers require that a surety or guarantor sign an agreement to be responsible for the fee. Some require both.

A retainer fee is the amount a lawyer charges to accept your case or to begin work on your case. The problem with charging a large retainer fee is that many deserving people cannot afford legal representation. The problem with requiring a guarantor or surety to guarantee payment is that not all deserving people have family or friends with the financial means to guarantee payment. My preference is to charge a smaller retainer fee, usually $3,500 but sometimes more. Then, if the client fails to make payments as agreed, I withdraw from representation. Before you sign a fee agreement or contract be sure you understand the agreement and the writing reflects the agreement you understand. If you think this is simple, consider these questions:

What does the retainer fee include? Some lawyers charge the retainer fee plus all hourly fees and costs. This means you pay the retainer fee for the lawyer’s availability to represent you and pay separately for the lawyer’s services.

Is the retainer fee refundable or non-refundable? If you fire your lawyer the day after paying a large retainer fee, some legitimate arguments exist why the lawyer is entitled to keep at least part of that fee above the hourly rate. For example, the lawyer can no longer represent your spouse against you, reducing the lawyer’s potential client pool by one. For the next six years, the lawyer must maintain records of his financial dealings with you. My fee agreements usually provide that the retainer is non-refundable.

Does the lawyer’s hourly rate suggest the lawyer’s level of competence? One effective lawyer in York County charges only $150 per hour. Unfortunately for you, she rarely practices in family court. Some of the least effective lawyers in York County charge $300 or more per hour with one charging $400 or more. Unfortunately, many practice regularly in the family court.

How does the lawyer calculate the hourly rate? An hourly rate of $300 seems to be $5 per minute but appearances are deceiving. Most lawyers charge minimum or rounded periods, such as one-tenth of an hour or six minutes, one-sixth of an hour or ten minutes, one fourth of an hour or fifteen minutes, or even one-half hour or thirty minutes, with each fraction of a unit rounded up to the next full unit. A three-minute phone call at $240 per hour would seem to be $15 but using the common fractions stated earlier the fee for that call may be $30, $50, $75 or $150. I charge one-tenth of an hour for any part of the first six minutes and then I round upwards in three-minute increments.

What does the lawyer charge for paralegal assistant time? Some lawyers charge an hourly rate for paralegal time, generally one-fourth to one-third of the lawyer’s hourly rate. Other lawyers may charge a flat rate for particular work done by a paralegal. Other lawyers do not charge for paralegal time. The lawyers to beware are those who show the paralegal’s work as the lawyer’s work and charge the lawyer’s hourly rate. Most lawyers do not charge for secretarial time but it is sometimes difficult to distinguish between paralegal work and secretarial work.

Under what circumstances may you fire your lawyer or may your lawyer stop representing you? Once your case is filed with the clerk of court, your lawyer is the “attorney of record.” The lawyer remains the attorney of record until the case is finished or until a family court judge signs a court order allowing the lawyer to be relieved as the attorney of record. If your lawyer wishes to be relieved and you refuse to consent to the court relieving him, then the lawyer must state the reasons he wants to be relieved in a motion to the court. Consent is better so you and the lawyer are not required to state your differences in court in the presence of your spouse’s lawyer.

See Appendix A, Retainer Fee Agreement, page 72, for my standard retainer fee agreement.