Sunday, June 18, 2017
Let's talk law offices and the practice of law. You all probably don't know that as part of what I do, I am co-chair of the fee dispute committee for our local bar. Yes, there is a committee that investigates and helps resolve disputes about the amount of a lawyer's fees. Before you get all excited and think you can come to us and say that someone's hourly rate was too high, or that they shouldn't have charged you a fee because you lost your case (yes, it happens), the fee dispute committee is there to look at a fee and see whether it was, in fact, too high (for some reason, no one ever complains that their lawyer charged them too little - go figure), and help the client and the lawyer settle on the disputed fee. Anyway, we joke at our Bar that I am chair of this committee for life, because I've been doing this 8 or 9 years, and no one else wants to do it. As a result, I have seen a lot of lawyers' bills, from the really expensive big firms, to the solo practitioner. Let me give you some tips as you wade into the Trenches, so I don't see your complaint cross my desk.
1. Read your retainer agreement BEFORE you sign it. I know, this sounds simple. In fact, a few of you just face planted on the table at the thought that someone wouldn't do this. It is my experience that almost no one really reads their retainer agreement. I have been in private practice for almost 30 years, and I can count on one hand (with fingers left over) the number of people who took their retainer agreement with them to read at their leisure, and who then contacted me with questions about the language in the agreement before they signed it. If it says I can charge you interest on an overdue balance, don't you want to know when I might do that and when I won't? I know I try to keep my retainer agreements in plain English, but there are still pieces of them that are not easy to understand if you're not a lawyer. Don't feel stupid if you ask a question; and conversely, if the lawyer tries to make you feel stupid for asking it, do you want them to be your lawyer?
2. OPEN your monthly statements and READ them. Again, sounds simple, yet it's not. I had one client to whom I mailed a cashier's check for a lot of overdue child support. After a period of time, the other attorney contacted me to make sure my client received the check, because it hadn't been cashed. I called my client, who proceeded to sift through the 20 or so unopened envelopes from me sitting on the desk. Yes, I said unopened. So first, open your mail. Second, read it. If you don't understand a billing entry, if you don't recall why there would be that billing entry, if the amount of time seems excessive (although I did have someone complain once that I didn't spend enough time perusing a document), then call the lawyer's office within 30 days of receipt. They should answer your questions and not charge you for the privilege of doing so (unless, of course, you combine a discussion of your case into that call or email). I'm charging you a lot of money - don't you care to know on what you're spending? If you wait until the end of your case and then open the bills and dispute on from 9 months ago, chances are, no one is going to be sympathetic.
3. Ask who is going to be working on your case. Is it just the person sitting behind the desk with you now, or will other people be doing work for you? Ask what work they will be doing. Ask why. Ask what happens if there are two people sitting in on your meeting, mediation or court appearance? Will you get charged for both? Is there a blended rate? Why are two people necessary? There are often really good reasons for two people to work at the same time on the same matter and same part of the matter. Sometimes there aren't. My office rarely, if ever, charges for two people at the same meeting. Some offices, however, divide duties and as a part of those divided duties, each lawyer/paralegal is doing something different and necessary even in the same meeting - that might be a reason to charge for two people. I have been a client, however, and my attorney (who I soon fired) had another attorney sit in on every meeting, even though that attorney added no value whatsoever to the meeting and was simply there to know what was going on. When I complained after the first bill that showed that charge, I was told that was simply how they did it and I would be charged for two lawyers whether I wanted them or not. OK, then I knew, and I had a choice whether to stay with that firm or move somewhere else. Do not fail to read your bill and then complain at the end of the representation that you were double-billed; that's your fault and your problem.
4. By the same token, ask if the lawyer does all the work on your case, or if their paralegal/assistant does a first draft that the lawyer then edits and expands upon. Who goes through and organizes the volumes of documents you provide - the lawyer or an assistant? Some firms don't have paralegals. Some firms don't have anyone but lawyers start to draft or review anything. Others have their paralegals/assistants take a first crack at it. None of these ways of getting out the work is wrong, it's just different, with different costs. You're paying for it and you should know. If you don't know, and don't read your bill and then don't complain until after 9 months of those charges, I don't feel that sorry for you.
5. You will be charged for the lawyer to do research. We don't know everything like the back of our hands, and we want to make sure that we are accurately applying the most recent law to your case. As a client, I want my lawyer to do that. Here's what I don't want them to do: teach themselves the basics on my dime. You should not be charged for research for things as elementary as how to file an answer, how many interrogatories they are allowed to ask, how many days until a pleading is due. Yes, I've seen it.
6. For what are you going to be charged, when and why? Filing the papers in your file at the office? Opening and organizing your file? Phone calls to set appointments and court dates? Making copies (both by the page and by the hour)? Travel? Postage? Hand delivery? Again, I've seen courts award lawyers their fees for all of these things, so they're permissible charges, but don't you want to know before you open your bill? Don't you want to know how the lawyer defines all these terms, so that you can make sure you're on the same page? Many of these things will not be in your retainer agreement, or if they are, are not defined or set forth in detail.
7. Ask what you can do to work on your case to save money. It costs a lot of money to sort through all of your papers and put them in order and figure out what you didn't provide. It takes a lot of time to go through the documents your spouse provided and do the same. If you can do that, and give a detailed breakdown of what's there and what's not, it'll save you quite a bit of money. If you're good with a spreadsheet and are good at tracing the money, I won't tell you you can't, and again, if you do it well, it will save you money. Of course, if you bring me documents thrown into a shopping bag, or send me documents in no particular order, or forget to tell me everything I need to know to assess what I have, it will cost you a lot, and I can and will charge you for that.
8. Lawyers do not guarantee outcomes. There are a lot of reasons why you may not "win" your case. I can pretty much guarantee you won't get everything you want. Most of the reasons have absolutely nothing to do with whether the attorney did the work necessary for the job. If your lawyer phoned it in, that's a problem, but most don't and they are prepared for whatever your case brings to the best of their ability. Sometimes your case isn't that good, or the judge isn't sympathetic, or your attorney didn't have the skills or experience another lawyer would have. That last one's on you. I know, lawyers are expensive. I know, you want to save money. Let me clue you in to a secret that really isn't a secret. Although there are exceptions, the bargain basement lawyer is cheap because they are either not that good at what they do or because they haven't been doing it very long. Give me a $100 an hour lawyer, and I will run rings around them every time because I've been doing this almost 30 years so I have more experience and knowledge, because I've worked on hundreds of cases, and I attend hours every year of continuing education. I do the same work in less time and know what is important in a case and how to present it. I also have a reputation for knowing what I'm doing and for being candid with other lawyers and the court, and those take time and effort to build. That's why I'm paid more. Don't hire the cheapest lawyer and then refuse to pay the bill because they didn't handle your case like the most expensive lawyer.
9. If you are running out of money for your case, talk to your lawyer. Don't let the bill continue to increase while you hide your head in the sand. We know the process is expensive. We know your finances better than do you. We would rather not be stuck with a huge receivable or have to withdraw from your case because we're not being paid. Have a conversation with your lawyer and see what other payment arrangements can be made. Don't be embarrassed - we'd so much rather have that conversation with you now than sue you later or leave you in a lurch. Maybe they'll work out the bill with you and maybe they won't. but isn't it better to know?
10. Be an educated consumer. Read what's sent or given to you. Ask questions. Learn your options. take an active part in your case. It is your life and your money, after all. Here in the Trenches.
Wednesday, June 14, 2017
As you all know by now, every year, Daughter and I run the Disney Princess Half Marathon Weekend at Disney World in Florida. In late February. The weather in late February in Central Florida is much like the weather in the rest of the country - unpredictable. You would think as a Florida native, I would remember that, but I don't always. Such was the case a few years ago, when Disney named their Princess weekend for Frozen. It certainly was - frozen. The temperature for the 10K was below freezing. Did I bring appropriate clothing? Heavens no. I brought shorts and floppy sparkle skirts. What to do? Well, we could run in our planned costumes and looked adorable and frozen. We could have not run. Lucky for us, two things happened. First, we stopped at the outlets for our usual shop on the way to the race. What is usually on sale at Florida outlets? Cold weather gear, of course, and I used the opportunity to stock up on some things I needed to run in the fall and winter. I had them with me, in all their technicolor glory. Second, the rest of our family ran the morning before in the 5K, when it was even colder, and Disney thoughtfully supplied them with warming mylar blankets, which they saved for us. Daughter and I looked a little goofy (no pun intended), our costumes were totally messed up, but we made do with what we had and were able to run without freezing off body parts because running the race and doing it together was what was important. That's life.
That's also life in the Trenches. Many times here in the Trenches, one party wants something the other isn't willing to give. It might be money for support. It might be time with the children. Whatever it is, that party isn't going to get what they want at that moment. They may, however, get something less.....for now. For now doesn't mean forever. It really means for now. So what happens when the party says what they want and the other says they won't give that but they will give something else? Usually, the first reaction is to say "no." "No" is really the wrong answer. I really don't care if the other party is being totally and completely unreasonable. Saying "no" is like throwing the baby out with the bath water. I want the children half the time; you want me to have the children every other weekend. If I say "no," not only don't I see the children half the time, I don't see them at all. I want $1,000 in support; you want to pay $500. If I say "no," I not only don't get $1,000, I don't get anything. Making do with something temporarily, even if it's not everything you want, is probably better than nothing.
Wait a minute, you say. Are you telling me to give in to that dictator? Are you telling me not to fight for what I want? Are you saying I should just cave in? Of course not. However, if you have no court date for 3 months, or you just separated, or the attorneys haven't had an opportunity to help you determine and resolve the issues, then making do with what you have while making sure the other party knows that it is under protest and only because something is better than nothing, may be what you have to do to stay in the running and continue to move forward. You're doing it for now, and only for now, and maybe that "now" has a defined time limit. Honestly, do you want to tell a judge that because you couldn't get your way, you just decided not to see the kids? Or would you rather show a judge how unreasonable the other parent was and that you took what time you could because being with your children was important to you? Would you rather have the other parent say you are incapable of caring for the children without the ability to disprove their statement, or would you rather you take less time and make them eat their words? Again, defining your goals early on and deciding what is most important to you, will help you determine whether saying "no," even just for now, is the right choice, or if settling for something less than ideal in the short term will further your goals. The knee jerk reaction is not usually the better course, and even those of us who toil here have to remind ourselves of that. Here in the Trenches.
Monday, June 5, 2017
I know I talk a lot about dogs and their owners, most recently here. It's true, however. There is an attorney for every client and a client for every attorney. What you're looking for is an attorney who talks so you can understand, who shares your approach to the divorce process and your values. Just as there are so many different people, so are there different attorneys. I've really struggled to illustrate this point for you, because there aren't a lot of blogs out there that have the right tone, but finally I can. I want to talk to you about a friend of mine here in the Trenches, Lindsay Parvis.
I love Lindsay. She has been the legislative liaison for the family law section of the bar association for years. Lindsay loves researching legislation. She follows the cases, the statutes. She loves researching the nuances of new laws. OK, she's a bit of a legislative nerd - and that's a good thing. Lindsay loves all of that, and she's incredibly generous with her knowledge. Me? I love reading her reports, so I know what to research in more detail. That woman saves all of us hours of incredibly detailed reading. Bless her.
She's more than the Bar's researcher, however. She's an incredibly good and passionate advocate for her clients. She cares deeply about them and their fates. As well as Lindsay communicates her wealth of information and knowledge to other attorneys, she has labored to find her voice to the world at large in order to share her knowledge and also her compassion. Recently, she's absolutely found it, and I've discovered a wonderful example for you of the differences in attorneys. Lindsay's writings are wonderful to read. Her insights are thought provoking, yet entertaining. Her personality as an attorney shines through. Go to her Facebook page and read a few posts. Yet, her voice is very different from mine, just as is her approach to clients. Is she a wonderful attorney? But of course. So, why am I saying this in my blog? Why am I saying lovely things about my competition? Because she's not. my. competition. Hear her voice and hear mine. They are not the same and neither are our clients. Read her posts and read mine. You'll see what I mean. Dogs and their owners. Here in the Trenches.
Sunday, May 21, 2017
Whenever I talk about process, I like to think of myself as The Process Girl, kind of like Julia Roberts was The Safety Girl in Pretty Woman. I know, pretty presumptuous of me, but I can dream. After this week, I am thinking of myself more like Wonder Woman, but with a big P on the chest of my costume. Why the change? Well, in Pretty Woman, Vivian was The Safety Girl more as an incidental part of what she did. The letter on the chest of Wonder Woman's costume reflected the innermost essence of what she was; and that's how I feel about process. I can deal with being Lynda Carter too.
This week, the importance of process was driven home to me twice. Let's back up and talk process again. No, not the type of process, like a dispute resolution mechanism, but the process of deciding itself. You see, it doesn't matter whether a person resolves their disputes around the kitchen table, or through mediation, collaborative process, lawyer to lawyer negotiation or litigation; the steps of the process is still the same:
1. Identify your goals, hopes, wants and needs, both from the process and for your life moving forward;
2. Develop the questions that need to be answered in order to realize those goals, hopes, wants and needs;
3. Determine and gather the information necessary to answer the questions you have asked;
4. Brainstorm without evaluating all possible solutions of the issues by using the information gathered to answer the questions needed to meet your goals, hopes, wants and needs;
5. Evaluate the possible solutions in order to meet resolution.
We call the five steps of the process different things depending on what kind of dispute resolution method we use. The steps may take different formats. But, and this is a big but, you MUST go through all the steps in order. Sure, sometimes we need to circle back based on what information is discovered, but the steps are always the same and in the same order. You cannot shortcut it - EVER.
Here's what happens when you try to shortcut the process - people get upset. They get really upset. and they get derailed You see, the steps of the process have multiple purposes; perhaps the most important of which is that it forces people to disengage their reactive, primitive reptile brain and engage the more evolved, rational part of their being. In other words, the steps of the process help folks be less emotional because they are focusing on something concrete. It helps people operate from a place of fact and information and not simply pain, shame and disappointment. It's empowering to be fully informed, and jump starts the analytical brain so people can make their own decisions.
Twice this week, clients attempted to shortcut the process; it wasn't pretty and it wasn't productive. Reminding people that there is a process, that we will get to where they want to go, and letting them know when that will be, is tremendously reassuring. Once clients know their concern is on the radar, that it will be addressed and when, they can relax. That helps motivate them to gather and synthesize information and make decisions. That's the beauty of the process. It's why I'm The Process Girl. Here in the Trenches.
Monday, May 15, 2017
You know I'm a bit of a Disney geek. We go every February for the Princess race weekend. When I lived in Florida, we went a few times a year. This year, I'm going with the ladies here in the Trenches.
When I plan the Princess weekend, I plan the weekend. I do it all. It is exhausting work. I call Disney. I spend interminable hours on the phone with their customer service. I arrange the dining, the rooms, the transportation, the park tickets. Even though I love planning the trip, there is no one to share the burden of the details. There is no one to help me vet all the choices. It's taken me years to learn everything I know about planning a Disney vacation. What you may not know about Disney is that they are remarkably bad about sharing information with their customer service representatives. Many times, I know more than them. They are not told when certain tickets will become available, or when certain discounts hit their servers. They don't know about all of the special events available to guests. If you're lucky and get one who has been there a while, they have some first hand knowledge of the resorts, but mostly, you're on your own. Yes, they are wonderfully nice and try to be helpful, but by and large, the customer service representatives aren't given the facts they need to really, really help you, as opposed to just making your reservation. So, for me, it can be lonely and stressful to make all the plans. Don't get me wrong, I love the research, I love making the plans; it's just a bit overwhelming.
For this Fall's trip, I decided to try DVC Rentals. They sell people's Disney Vacation Club (timeshare) points to folks like me. You rent a vacation club lodging by buying their points. It is supposed to be somewhat cheaper than renting a hotel room at the same resort at Disney, and as I love their deluxe resorts, saving money is good. Any way, I contacted them. Lauren Enochs answered my inquiry. I explained my requirements; she made suggestions as to appropriate lodgings, based on our needs, availability of the lodgings, and type of resort. She helped me compare choices. I made my choice and made a reservation. Work done, right? Wrong. Lauren sent me an email when it was time to make my dining reservations, so I wouldn't miss out. She answered my email about the dining plan (on a Saturday, no less). She obtained a quote for me for park tickets. She arranged my transportation from the airport. All I had to do was email her. No hours on the phone with Disney. No waiting on hold. I felt like a huge weight was lifted off my shoulders. I could focus on making this the best trip ever, as opposed to dealing with the minutiae of the logistics of getting us there and sheltered. My goodness, what a difference it made having Lauren there. Even though I knew what to do, it was so much better to share the chore with someone I could trust to know at least as much as I, if not more. I will never plan my Disney trip alone again without my guide.
Getting a divorce is kind of like planning a trip to Disney. Sure, you could do it yourself. It will take you years and years of research to learn all of information you need to know to make an informed decision. It will take over your life. Maybe you won't understand everything you learn. You need a customer service representative to help you. The trick is to find the right representative. You could call around and find an attorney. Maybe you'll be lucky and find one who has been around a while and knows the lay of the land and the latest developments in the law. Maybe you'll get someone who doesn't, and if that's the case, the stress you feel in dealing with your divorce or custody matter may not be relieved. You'll sense there is something more, something you're not getting. You wonder if you're getting all you should. What you want, what you need, is a Lauren. You need someone who knows the law, knows the ropes. You need someone who tries to understand you, tries to understand what you need. You need someone who speaks your language, who makes you feel safe and cared for. When you find that lawyer, that is the lawyer for you. You may have to go through a lot of interviews with a lot of
Wednesday, May 3, 2017
I'm down here in beautiful Savannah, enjoying continuing legal education and the company of my colleagues and friends from around the country. One of my friends commented that my blogging has been a bit spotty over the last few months, and he was wondering what was up. This friend rarely "likes" any of my posts, and doesn't comment; he describes himself as a lurker on my blog. I knew he read my blog on occasion, but until he told me this, I was not overtly aware that he was a regular reader.
I'm not only attending this conference, I am also presenting. My topic is locating the military servicemember in order to start a family law case. One of the methods I talked about was seeing if the servicemember has a Facebook page, Twitter account, or other social media account. Lots of folks have them, and usually they have them well prior to a family law case being commenced. Part of having these accounts is adding "friends" and building a community of contacts. Most people never look at their friends list after they have added people to the list. Some people never even set their privacy settings. As a result, unless someone "likes" their posts, most people don't remember who is on their friends list, and thus, who has access to the information on their social media pages. Many times, their spouse, friends of their spouse, family of their spouse, friends of friends of their spouse are seeing everything posted, and only if they're stupid are they "liking" or commenting online. I know I have 237 friends on Facebook, and maybe fewer than 10 ever comment on or "like" my posts. That means 227 people are seeing what I'm putting online, and saying nothing. If my privacy settings weren't enabled, the world could see what I post. Wow, what a treasure trove of potential evidence exists online! As a attorney, I'm not allowed to create a phantom profile in order to be "friended" by the opposing party. I am also not permitted to tell a client to remove their social media pages, because that would be destruction of evidence.
In light of all of the above, what am I telling you? Periodically review your privacy settings. Periodically review who you have allowed to view your online social media, and edit it when there is a major life event that affects your social network and familial ties. Be judicious about what you post online; don't post it if you don't want it to be the subject of your deposition or brought up in testimony in court. Remember that everything you say can and will be used against you in your custody or divorce case. Let the poster beware. Here in the Trenches.
Tuesday, April 18, 2017
It's time to revisit process. Remember, I'm the process girl. The most important part of any process for dispute resolution is the first step: clarifying your interests and goals for the resolution of the dispute. If you don't take your time with this step and really flesh it out, then you have no idea what represents an acceptable resolution. You might obtain a resolution or ask a judge for a result that doesn't actually meet your needs. Do you want that to happen? Do you want to spend the time and effort (and many times, money) on resolving the dispute, only to find it doesn't work for you? Heck no.
Here's the other thing, no matter what the process choice, settlement is ALWAYS a possibility, even if you're going to litigation, even if it's the first day of trial. If you know your goal and the interests that underlie it, you can assess options quickly, make tweaks to proposals and make decisions efficiently. If you don't, you're destined to spin your wheels and dither (I hate dithering, even though I'm probably guilty of it myself).
I was reminded of all of this yesterday. I had a case with an attorney who is renowned for taking little to no interest in a case until the day of trial. Now, this attorney is a really good trial attorney, and he has other attorneys who prepare the case for trial so he can just show up and try it. He is, however, the only attorney on his side with any authority to reach a settlement. That means that if you want to settle with this attorney, you are necessarily unable to do so until the night before trial or the morning of trial. That's tricky, because if you use your trial time to try and settle and don't settle the case, you have lost your trial slot and won't get another for month, and you will have annoyed the court. Usually, a delay and pissing off the court are not in your client's best interest. Ergo, if you're going to try to settle, you had better be reasonably certain it's possible, and more, that you know whether it's going to happen in a reasonably short period of time. The only way that can happen is if you know your client's goal for the representation. As I like to say, a case about the money is never really about the money; the money stands for something.
What does all this mean for you? It means that you want your attorney to spend a lot of time getting to know you, getting to know what is important to you, discovering what is working and not working about your present circumstance and why. You want your attorney to dig deep with you about your hopes, wishes and dreams. I know, that doesn't sound like "legal" work; it may feel like it takes a lot of time. Maybe you feel like it's a waste of time. It's not. Spending that time with you lays important groundwork that enables you to settle your case in a way that meets your core needs, and it lets us here in the Trenches work efficiently. Spending the time now will save you time, effort and money later. It's a worthwhile investment in your future. Here in the Trenches.