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To Have or Have Not: Why Do I Need a Lawyer

Many people have e-mailed me asking if they need a lawyer to handle their divorce. "We agree on everything," e-mails often say, "why do I need a lawyer?"I have two thoughts on this: First, all language used in legal documents has a certain meaning -- and that meaning might change, depending on how courts are interpreting statutes and other things, such as changes in the law. It is very good if two divorcing people can reach an agreement as to TERMS, but each should have an attorney to draft or review documents so that they can be sure the documents are in proper form and actually say what the parties have agreed. Also, there are local nuances for the filling of divorces as well as requirements for the recording of deeds and other related issues.

Kansas City Family Attorney - The Corley Law FirmIf you choose the right lawyer, he or she should listen to what you want, advise you of any legal implications you have forgotten or overlooked, and then do his or her best job to draft the documents in the way YOU want, explain what is happening or any additional requirements, and provide representation in case a dispute later arises that concerns differing interpretations.

Second, although I do travel out of county, it is important to consider having an attorney who is local to your county and knows the ins-and-outs of your county and its particular judges. I really resent having to say this, but often the person who has a local lawyer has the "home town" advantage. I get hired to go to small counties when my client doesn't trust the local bar or can't find someone in the local bar to fight for them; but I do recommend that people consider having a local attorney, to get the "home town" edge.

If you have a lawyer in your geographical area that has done well for you, stick with him or her. A good lawyer will not press you to create or continue needless controversy, but a good lawyer will ALSO tell you what an agreement you are contemplating means, or doesn't mean, so you go into every legal transaction with "eyes wide open."

A Flashlight

Many people ask me if they and their spouses can use the same lawyer in a divorce, or if they need a divorce lawyer since their spouse has one that will draw up the papers.

Representation of two parties to a divorce is an ethical violation. But over and above that, to those people who are trying to cut costs by using the same lawyer or just one person getting a lawyer, I say this: If you are in a cave with somebody and they have a flashlight but you don't, you'll be okay IF you can trust them and IF they are going the same place as you. But if you can't trust them, or if their destination is different than yours, you're likely to be left in the dark. The same thing is true with lawyers: If the other guy has one, you're okay IF you can trust them and IF they have the same goals as you. But if they are not trustworthy or have conflicting goals, then you better get yourself a flashlight.

Choosing An Attorney

The choice of a lawyer is a tricky business, as personal as your choice of friends, furniture, or deodorant. They come in all shapes and sizes, and you not only have to find out whether your case is right for them, but also if they as an attorney and as a person are right for you. Regarding how to choose an attorney, here is what I tell people, including family and friends.

  1. Ask for a free consultation. Anybody who (A) wants your business; and (B) is honest, will talk to you for a half hour or so without charge. I myself do this most of the time; exceptions are if I have already spent more than a half an hour on the telephone with the person doing the initial interview.
  2. During the initial free consultation, size the person up. How do you react to them? Do you feel intimidated? If you do, that's a bad sign; it means you will hesitate to ask the lawyer to do what you want.
  3. Check out the lawyer's office. Is it lush? That's impressive, but probably means he/she spends your money on office furnishings. A nice conference room is important but the rest of the office should be efficiently organized and fairly utilitarian. The myth of luxurious offices meaning a successful lawyer might still be true at times, but when I go into a posh office, all I think is, "Here's a guy who charges his clients too much."
  4. Make a list of questions you have (even if you don't know if they are relevant) and ask the questions of the lawyer in the initial visit. Gauge your opinion of the lawyer on what that person says and how he or she responds to being questioned. Does the attorney treat you as impertinent for asking? Does he or she have answers -- and do your questions inspire questions of you in return? If so, it is a good indication the lawyer is a rapid thinker who can assess the situation, respond with what he or she knows, and search for additional relevant information.
  5. What are your goals, and what are the lawyer's goals? Is the lawyer willing to work for your goals?
  6. Take a friend or family member with you. Don't tell the lawyer anything that needs to be confidential with a 3rd party present, but let your visitor observe some of the exchange at least, to get a third opinion of the lawyer.
  7. If possible, ask for a reference of a former client or the name of a case he or she has handled. This might not be possible because of client confidentiality, but sometimes clients will consent to give a reference.
  8. Never pick your lawyer on the first visit, and never just visit one lawyer. You need a standard of comparison, and you need to be able to sit back in the privacy of your home and think, "Did I like this lawyer? Did I feel comfortable with his or her style? Did he or she impress me as someone who will fight when it is necessary, negotiate with skill and style, and earn the respect of a judge? Does this person respect me, and respect my goals?" Your answers to these questions should make you feel as though you can trust the lawyer.

Finally, if you hire a lawyer and later feel that your choice was wrong, consider terminating his/her services. I have done a number of Motions to Modify for people who said, "I wanted to fire my lawyer but he/she talked me out of it." I routinely believe that it was a mistake. A crisis of confidence is not a good sign. I have had several clients over the years that lost confidence in me, and I felt they made the right choice to change lawyers. I'm a good lawyer, but if you don't feel comfortable with me, you should have a different lawyer. Lawyers are like hairdressers: You have to be able to trust them with sharp scissors close to your ears.

Flexible Holidays

Thanksgiving has come and gone, and I would like to share my perspective. I was in a trial on the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, and when I got out of trial, there must have been ten messages from various clients all to the same end: "Where is my child going to spend Thanksgiving?" At the risk of sounding pompous, I would like to point out that a day is, after all, just a day. Oh, I know, that's easy for me to say -- it's well known that my son's father has never seen him, and I get to have him on every holiday there is and a few we just make up! Having said that, I also know that every day is a day on which I give thanks that my son and I have this world together.

Judge Christine Sill-Rogers once responded to a mother's request that my client "share" each holiday by saying that she " was not going to make this child drop her fork in the middle of pumpkin pie to rush to another parent's household". When you get over the hurdle of "sharing" time with a person for whom you no longer feel the same love that compelled you to procreate with them, you must move onto the next hurdle: There are going to be some holidays spent with the other parent. Your response can either be to feel cheated and resentful, or make Christmas Eve -- or the Friday after Thanksgiving -- the new traditional Day of Celebration in alternate years.

It's that simple: Human organisms, as all other organisms, must adapt or perish. The law can only fix so much. The rest is up to you.

The Economics of Hiring a Lawyer

A lot of people have asked me if lawyers should take payment plans. 'They all want several thousand dollars in retainers,' they tell me. 'What is the money for?' The short answer is, that most lawyers put the money in an interest- or noninterest-bearing trust account and bill against it until it is consumed. Whether the account is interest-bearing or not has little effect on the client, since the interest goes to a fund and not the lawyer or the client. The lawyer bills against the retainer hourly for legal fees (in Kansas City, these rates can range from $100 to $300 for lawyers, and $50 to $150 for paralegals) and also for the costs -- depositions, postage, long distance, mileage, copies, delivery, service, filing fees, and so forth. The fees are billed monthly and the costs can be billed monthly or as incurred.

As for payment plans, bear in mind that the lawyer does not work for his or her clients "on a budget" that is, two hours a month or four hours a month. The lawyer must do all the work that comes up for the client's case each month. To ask a lawyer to accept two hours' of pay a month (particularly where the first 2/3 - 3/4 of each hour's billing goes to overhead for a solo practitioner or a small firm), is the same as asking for an interest-free loan for the balance of your bill. Most lawyers cannot afford to have all that uncollected billing. By the same token, in our profession the collection rate for clients' bills is generally around 40%. That means, 60% of all time billed is never paid. Having a large retainer in the bank insures that the lawyer will be paid. Even my clients who set up payment plans regrettably feel perfectly free to stop paying if they have other financial commitments. We all know that the electric, gas and phone companies have a remedy if you stop paying -- your services are terminated -- but lawyers have ethical obligations and might not be able to withdraw just because you don't pay your bill. Moreover, lawyers who have finished your case have no leverage to get you to pay. Should it surprise you that they want to make sure their bill is paid before taking the case to trial? I do make payment agreements, myself, but I am 'burned' at least the average 60% of the time, by people who sat in my office and swore they would pay. It makes me less likely to be agreeable for future clients, but I still endeavor to work out written payment plans for each hourly client.

The best way to handle the situation is to discuss with the lawyer you plan to hire in advance what he or she thinks your average monthly bill will be, and develop a plan for making reasonable payments every month. Particularly where out-of-pocket costs are concerned (depositions, for example) don't expect the lawyer to incur or advance the bill if you have no resources with which to reimburse the lawyer or pay the bill.

Bear in mind that the lawyer has obligations, too, and doesn't say to you, 'I can only work on your case an hour each month'. If you hire a lawyer, you should understand that a contested case -- particularly a family law case -- might run $1000 or more in many months --- so if you are only paying $100 or $50 a month, that lawyer is lending you the balance, interest-free, and at the cost of his or her own overhead and salary. It is more fair to borrow from family or friends, or borrow from a bank, than to expect the lawyer to lend you money under circumstances that you yourself would never find acceptable. Would you give someone a $5000 interest-free loan, for an indefinite period of time? Probably not, unless it was a very close family member. Hiring a lawyer is a business transaction: Lawyers try to carry their share of the bargain, and you should too.

On the other hand, you should get a monthly, itemized statement of your account. If you have questions about your bill, the lawyer should not charge you to discuss it. I am not saying it's an ethical violation, because I don't know whether or not it is. But it doesn't seem sound practice because it is not really "lawyering".

Above all, be open and honest with your lawyer at the time you are considering hiring him or her. Let him or her know your financial situation before you hire him or her. If the lawyer can't give you an estimate of how much you might reasonably expect to spend on a case, talk to another lawyer. In this day and age, attorneys' fees are rarely awarded, so you can plan on paying your own bill. Make sure you are getting value for your dollar, but also make sure you don't take on a legal fight that you cannot afford.

The Corley Law Firm proudly represents clients throughout the greater Kansas City area. This includes Kansas City, Liberty, Platte City, and Harrisonville. County areas: Jackson County, Cass County, Platte County, and Clay County.
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