1. Have an Clear Written Fee Agreement
Most experienced and effective divorce attorneys charge by the hour and require an advance retainer (or deposit) that is paid at the beginning of the case. Fees and expenses will be charged against the retainer until it is exhausted, at which point the client will be responsible for any additional sums incurred. Find out in advance and plan accordingly.
Some attorneys will take a divorce case on a flat fee basis. I personally handled my divorce this way. But it may not be best. The problem with this arrangement is the attorney has no incentive to do anything beyond the bare minimum. The client often feels like his case is being ignored, the attorney often feels like the client is intentionally trying to take up as much of his time as possible, and they may both be right.
2. Your Divorce Lawyer is not your Therapist
Divorces are extremely emotional. Because your divorce attorney is (or at least should be) firmly in your corner, talking to him can be a very reassuring experience. This person understands your side of the situation and it feels good to talk to someone who sees the righteousness of your position. Because it makes you feel better you get into the habit of calling often, almost daily.
Unless you have more money than you know what to do with you should NOT fall into this trap.
Remember that every time you call your lawyer the clock is ticking and you are getting billed by the hour. Think of it as a very expensive cab ride. As soon as you get in the cab, the meter starts running. It works the same with a lawyer, as soon as you are on the phone with him the meter is running and you are getting charged.
This does not mean you should never communicate with your lawyer. On the contrary, you should communicate with your attorney anytime you need legal advice on your case. But before you pick up the phone make a list of questions or issues you want to discuss and limit your conversation to these points without wasting time ranting about the unfairness of the situation.
3. Negotiate Personal property Settlements Privately
Arguing about which party deserves personal and household effects id far from a good use of the attorney’s time. Most will be happy to handle this but you will be paying hundreds of dollars an hour for items that even the Salvation Army may not want. Save the skill and experience of your lawyer for the things that cost the big bucks … division of assets, especially Federal (CSRS and FERS) annuities, military retirement pay, spousal maintenance and child support. When it comes to furniture, kitchen appliances, the yard tools in the garage and such, just accept the fact you are going to win some and lose some and get the matter settled with your spouse as quickly and as amicably as you can. You can give her the old TV and buy a new flat screen for less than what your attorney and hers will charge to enter into a fight over who gets the old one. Most judges, although they aren’t going to admit it, will operate on the principle that they have done their job if both parties are frustrated at what they receive, so far better and far cheaper to make your own distribution rather than being told off from the bench. Divide these items by agreement and exchange them before the case has been completed.
Then, when it is time to finalize the divorce the term in the agreement and/or Final Decree, the document will simply state that each party keeps all personal effects (furniture, clothing, electronics, appliances, kitchen equipment, etc.) in that party’s possession. This can save a great deal in fees by avoiding debates over property that has very little market value.
4. Don’t Throw Away Dollars Trying to Save Nickels
This is extremely important. People will often be extremely frugal about hiring an attorney and think they are saving a lot of money by hiring a lawyer for a small flat fee, or hiring someone who is not very experienced but will work cheaply.
This is a mistake.
Your goal should be to reach a reasonable settlement as quickly as possible. In order to reach this goal you will need an effective lawyer who sincerely shares that objective with you. That lawyer will then use his experience and skills to help you reach that objective.
But notice that I said reasonable settlement, not just any settlement. If the other side cannot be convinced to settle the case on reasonable terms it is imperative that your lawyer be skillful and confident enough to effectively try your case.
Especially if CSRS or FERS pensions, TSP assets, FEHB or FEGLKI issues are at stake, pay the money for a lawyer who knows how to handle them … or the money you think you are saving you probably will not.