Family Lawyer Calgary Blog
In a world where legal information seems to be everywhere and the internet is chock full of helpful suggestions to “do your own divorce” it may be tempting to go it alone. We have had many clients take the first steps of their divorce on their own and come to regret it. It is all too easy to make significant errors early on that wind up causing more stress, costing you more money and wasting your valuable time. It is completely understandable to us that people want to engage in the process and try and minimize the expense associated with divorce matters but the simple fact is you don’t know what you don’t know. Having access to legal information is only one piece required to minimize expense and time in resolving a legal issue effectively. It is most effective to work with a lawyer who can provide a wealth of knowledge and experience to assist in working towards resolution. We are of the view that two minds are better than one and having a partner with the experience and knowledge to help you with your matter and move it along expeditiously ensures you will save that time, money, and stress. It is that philosophy, two minds are better than one that led to the partnership between Kelly and Christine and if you choose to work with us then you will have the benefit of doubling down on the knowledge and experience lawyers can provide.
Lawyers are people too and we all have different personalities, backgrounds, education and experience levels that differentiate us from other lawyers. Choosing the right lawyer can be a daunting process as it is your lawyer who is entrusted with matters that are extremely important in your life. It is of utmost importance that you are able to establish a working relationship based on trust with the lawyer with whom you choose to work. If I were choosing a lawyer for my own legal matter, the following three considerations would top my list.
Particularly with family law matters, topics that will be discussed between you and your lawyer can be sensitive and will require candid and sometimes difficult discussions. If you are not comfortable immediately speaking with a lawyer then that lawyer is perhaps not the right one for you. In order for us to do our jobs well we need to understand your thoughts, your hopes, and your fears moving forward so that we are in the best position to be able to assist. Sometimes information that is not obviously relevant can help me in choosing what the best method of resolution may be for you. For example, someone leaving a relationship that was marred by domestic violence may not be willing or able to sit in a mediation session across the table from their spouse to negotiate property matters. Having that knowledge assists in crafting different negotiations or resolutions that will accord with each client’s individual needs.
By this I mean not only does your lawyer have the requisite knowledge in the particular area of law for which you need assistance but is that lawyer able to effectively communicate their knowledge to you. It does not matter how much that lawyer knows of the law if you are not able to understand the information being provided. It is our job as lawyers to make sure that each client has all of the information they need to understand the pros and cons of any decision they make so that they can confidently be in charge and direct their matter by giving us instructions to follow. Having a complete understanding of the legal issue you face together with the choices and options at your disposal will give you the confidence you need to make decisions that affect your life the most.
If you have that immediate comfort level and feel your lawyer is knowledgeable and able to assist you, you will likely be presented with a Contract for Legal Services or Retainer Agreement that will set out the terms of your working relationship. This document is an important opportunity for you to determine whether or not your lawyer is in fact a clear communicator and is completely transparent with respect to fees. Often lawyers bill by the hour. Meaning they will set their hourly fee, for example $400 per hour, and they will usually bill at 0.1, or 6 minute increments. A lawyer may request a retainer of $3000 or $5000 to cover those fees. Unfortunately, that is often the most information a client will receive. It is impossible to know how long that initial $5000 will last before it is exhausted and the lawyer asks you to provide a further retainer. Clients do not have a good understanding about how long steps will take on their matter. For example, does it take a lawyer ten minutes or two hours to prepare a Statement of Claim for Divorce? Having a transparent Retainer Agreement with specified fees and expectations allows you to budget and allows you to make informed choices about different options and the costs associated with each option you may pursue in your matter. Finally, the retainer arrangement is also an opportunity to understand the expectations you may have of your counsel. Lawyers should be prepared to commit to clients with respect to communication guidelines; for example, how quickly will an email be answered? How far in advance do appointments book? When will my phone call be returned? Asking all of these questions and more will help you choose a lawyer that is best suited to work with you and assist with your legal matter.
The best lawyers and the most effective lawyers are those who are well prepared and have an opportunity to ensure that they have considered all of the relevant issues and have a complete understanding of your legal matter. It is not uncommon for us to see people start off on their own as self-represented litigants as they are unable or unwilling to utilize the services of a lawyer. I can certainly appreciate that legal disputes are often expensive, however, when one chooses not to retain someone until the last minute it is very difficult for the lawyer to provide you the best overall representation, service, and work product. It becomes more of a challenge for the lawyer to have a deep understanding of all of the important pieces of your legal puzzle and it makes our jobs significantly more difficult. You may be surprised to learn that retaining a lawyer early on often serves to save you money in the long run. Where a lawyer has time to contemplate alternative means of resolving your legal matter and brainstorming alternatives to litigation, time is saved which means that you save money.
The second major issue with waiting until the last minute to seek legal assistance is that you will not know whether or not your materials are sufficient to give you a good shot at being successful in your matter. By way of an example, we are often called by self-represented litigants who have scheduled their own court matter to be heard. They will contact us a few days before that application and it is only at that point that we have an opportunity to review the materials provided. The materials are often prepared by very intelligent people however unfortunately as they have not received the legal training required to prepare excellent legal documents, there are often significant pieces that are missed. Missing pieces of important evidence is very easy to do and will significantly impede chances of success in court.
Some errors that are made without experience are irreversible and can cause long-lasting impact. When you act on your own behalf the risk to you is significantly increased. There are many good reasons to hire experts and it is trite to say that one should not do one’s own surgery, nor should one represent themselves for their own legal matters.
When choosing a family law lawyer to assist you with your separation, your divorce, parenting or support issues it is important that you choose one who is very familiar with family law and all that it entails. Various areas of law such as personal injury, criminal and immigration law are all very complicated areas as is family law. It is extremely difficult if not impossible to be up to speed with all of the ongoing developments in several areas of law. When you deal in primarily one area of focus day in and day out you are the first to know of any upcoming changes and adapt accordingly in addition to growing one’s knowledge base all the time. If a lawyer dabbles in many different areas, it may be that the lawyer cannot keep up with all of the developments in each area of law which poses a risk to the client. In the alternative it may also be the case that they will endeavor to get up to speed in that area of law for their client files but the client is billed for the lawyer’s time to educate the lawyer in that area. For these reasons finding a lawyer that handles primarily family law for your family law matter is likely the most prudent course of action.
Perhaps not surprisingly it is advisable to seek legal advice as soon as you are aware that you may be encountering a legal dispute. From my perspective it seems that sometimes people are reluctant to contact a lawyer for fear of escalating a situation. I like to tell perspective clients that no matter what happens they remain in the driver’s seat. Your legal matter is yours alone and I take instruction from you. This means that no one ever needs to know that you sought legal advice unless you decide to tell them. For this reason, you should feel comfortable in contacting lawyers knowing that no one will ever know you did so. True peace of mind comes from having the knowledge required to make informed decisions about matters that affect you.
It is commonly acknowledged that cohabitation is on the rise. More and more couples are choosing to move in together without tying the knot. Whether you are moving in together or tying the knot, it is important that individuals enter these economic relationships with their eyes wide open. During my years practicing Family Law, I have learned that there are many widely held myths about cohabitation and property entitlements for unmarried couples. For example, I have often been asked in my practice whether each partner is entitled to 50% of the property once couples have lived together for a period of six months. The answer is almost always no.
In Alberta, property entitlements for individuals residing together in romantic relationships is certainly not straightforward. It may surprise people to learn that even if you think you are taking all the correct steps to ensure your appropriate entitlement, that may not be the case. For example, two people begin dating. At that point, they are each residing in their own properties but decide to take the next step in their relationship and move in together. They find a house that they fall in love with, they each contribute to the down payment for the purchase of the property, they are each registered as owners in joint-tenancy on Title and they are both equally liable for the mortgage obtained for the purchase of the home. The couple lives together for many years and they have two children together. Both spouses work full-time jobs and additionally, the mother is trying to set up her own business so she works a lot of evenings and weekends. Accordingly, the father is left to handle more of the household and family responsibilities, although it cannot be said that the mother is an absent parent at all. In circumstances such as these, it would not be surprising if you were to assume that upon separation both of these parents would be entitled to 50% of the equity built up in that home. This assumption may be wrong. It is an unfortunate state of our current law that if two roommates purchase a property together, being friends, family members, or unrelated parties, the law of property would apply to them and likely they would both be entitled to share in the equity of the property. If the purchasers are involved in a family relationship, the analysis becomes much more complicated when determining the property entitlement, unless the parties have executed a Cohabitation Agreement. Surprisingly, the Courts in Alberta have frequently decided that the mother in the scenario above, without a Cohabitation Agreement, is entitled to less than 50% of the family’s assets on separation.
A Cohabitation Agreement can be hugely beneficial to people as it sets out expectations and rules with respect to who is entitled to different forms of property and how a couple will arrange their finances. People with assets, a business interest, or who are contributing to a shared property may wish to prepare and execute a Cohabitation Agreement before moving in together.
Information you share online is never private.
The information you share online about yourself, your partner, your children may be used as evidence in your family law matter. This means that your comments, photos, and posts can be used to show evidence of parental gatekeeping, poor parenting skills, inappropriate judgement or substance abuse. It really is true that a picture is worth a thousand words!
We have prepared some guidelines to assist you in keeping this type of damaging evidence away from your case. To be safe, follow the guidelines below:
Family law matters can often be emotionally charged and difficult to navigate. Whenever you are communicating about anything at all, particularly in writing, you must ensure that you are on your best behaviour. Children will pick up on negative emotions and you should always ensure that you speak kindly of your child’s other parent.
Posting negative comments about an ex-partner or other involved parties can counteract attempts to find amicable resolutions and can harm the character of the person posting the content. Stay positive on social media, and never post or send anything that you wouldn’t want brought up in court.
Also remember that if you delete something you know to be incriminating or damaging, opposing parties could argue you are destroying evidence. Keep it clean and positive from the start.
Always log out of any online account before leaving your computer.
Use strong passwords that are a combination of numbers and words and will not easily guessed.
Many social media accounts now offer two- factor authentication where each time you log-in on a new computer or phone, you will have to input a code which is sent to your cell-phone. This prevents someone from guessing your password and logging onto your account from their own computer. Change the password immediately for any account that you suspect may be compromised.
There is no such thing as privacy or anonymity on the internet. When you create an account with platforms such as Facebook and Twitter, even messages between yourself and your friends can be used, as can any old photos or negative posts and comments that you’ve made in the past.
Take the time to read all privacy settings and be extremely careful about how public your posts are.
Remember that if you comment, like, or share a post on someone else’s social media account, all of their friends can also see that you have done so. If your friend’s account is public, then anyone with access to the internet can see your post. This way friends of friends can access what you have posted online. If you wouldn’t want it seen by an opposing party, don’t post it at all!
Be careful to use appropriate communication. Discuss confidential matters over the phone or in person instead of posting or messaging about it. Have these discussions out of the home where you can be sure that your child cannot accidentally overhear you.
For many people facing the breakdown of a relationship or other family law matters it can be difficult to decide whether to hire a lawyer or to represent themselves and try to resolve their matter “outside of the formal system.” Even if their matter does end up before the courts, many people are unsure about hiring a lawyer for many reasons. A few of those reasons are that lawyers are seen to be expensive and a perception that the parties involved know their family better than any lawyer possibly could. It can be difficult to conceptualize the value proposition a lawyer offers as we are paid in large part for the knowledge inside our heads more than for a concrete product. Finally, as our society moves more and more towards freedom of information and a do-it-yourself approach to everything from home renovations to legal representation, the courts and governments are increasingly offering services to assist people in representing themselves in court. Most good lawyers, however, would tell you that they would never represent themselves in their own matter. So what is it that lawyers know that non-lawyers do not? This post explores some of those secrets and the key reasons why hiring a lawyer is your best bet at navigating this difficult time in your life.
Would you seriously consider performing your own surgery or plumbing? If like most people you answered no, then why would you consider presenting your case to a court?
A high standard of training and education is required to become a lawyer in Alberta. Most lawyers in Alberta have some type of 3 or 4 year bachelor’s degree and all lawyers in Alberta have a 3 year degree in law (or equivalent) and 12 months of on the job training under the supervision of senior lawyers (called articles). I have a 4 year bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto, a 3 year undergraduate law degree from the University of British Columbia and a 1 year Master of Laws degree from the London School of Economics. In addition I spent 12 months learning the practice of law under the supervision of senior lawyers during my articles. In addition to these educational and training requirements, in order to become a lawyer in Alberta students are required to successfully complete competency based coursework during their articles. Even after becoming a lawyer, lawyers are continuously learning. Since becoming a lawyer in 2012, I have continued to learn on the job by working with senior lawyers, working on other client’s cases and networking and brainstorming legal issues with others in the legal community. Like most lawyers in Alberta I also participate regularly in continuing learning courses and seminars on topics relevant to my areas of practice. I also continuously read new cases in these areas of law as they are released by the courts, read articles written by law professors and other lawyers, and notices to all lawyers issued by the courts and the Law Society of Alberta.
Lawyers are also highly regulated and are held to a very high standard of professional ethics and conduct. We are guided and bound by our Code of Conduct as well as the Rules of the Law Society of Alberta. One of our mandatory duties is that we owe our clients the duty to provide competent legal services. What this means for you the client, is that I have a mandatory obligation to be knowledgeable about the area of law in which I am providing you services.
Finally, like most lawyers I practice law full time. Also, like most lawyers I practice in a few discrete areas of law. This is all I do, 40+ hours per week. I know the steps involved in taking your family law case from beginning to end. I know the various options available to resolve your case. I know the correct format for your court documents and know the legal test the court will apply if your matter ends up in front of a judge. If I do not know the legal test off the top of my head, I know how to quickly and easily research the legal test. This allows me to understand very quickly what facts are relevant to the judge in deciding your case and which are not. Presenting only relevant facts to the judge makes for a polished, concise, and efficient presentation of your case.
Non-lawyers do not have most, if any of the qualities outlined above. Non-lawyers typically interact with the legal system a few specific times throughout their lives: when they buy a home, when they go through the breakdown of a significant relationship, and for wills and estates matters. Non-lawyers who own or run businesses may also deal occasionally with corporate lawyers and tax lawyers. These brief interactions do not equip the non-lawyer to manage a family law case from beginning to end.
Many self-represented litigants are very intelligent and educated people. They may have a bachelor’s degree like any lawyer. Some may even have advanced degrees in non-legal fields. No doubt some of these parties have the intellectual capacity and other qualities required to successfully practice law. However, as they are not lawyers, they do not have a 3 year law degree, they have not spent 12 months of on the job training under the supervision of senior lawyers, they do not attend continuing education seminars, and they do not keep up to date on the latest developments in the law by reading new cases as they are released by the courts. Finally, they lack the experience and understanding of the process gained by working on hundreds of other family law cases.
2. A Lawyer can Help you Achieve Finality and Certainty so you can Move on with your Life
Many self-represented parties find themselves stuck in an endless mountain of red tape and court proceedings. A lawyer has the knowledge to educate you about your options which will empower you to make informed decisions and to help you to tailor your goals to fit within what is achievable. Self-represented parties may be stuck in an endless cycle of court proceedings because they do not understand the process or are taking a position that will never be successful. A lawyer can sometimes walk into a situation like this and resolve your matter more quickly than you ever thought possible by guiding and directing your court matter towards a resolution.
A lawyer also knows that court is not the only option to resolve family law matters. A lawyer can help guide you as to whether your situation requires a court proceeding or whether it can be resolved in another manner such as negotiation or mediation. Lawyers have certain instincts about what may be effective in your particular case gained through their experience in working on similar cases.
Even those cases where people part ways on decent terms and can agree between themselves on how to separate assets are best served by engaging the services of a reputable family law lawyer. Did you know that a do-it-yourself separation agreement signed without each party obtaining independent legal advice is unlikely to be upheld by the courts in the future? Hiring a lawyer now when everyone is on relatively good terms and is in agreement with the contents of the agreement can save you much more expensive legal bills in the future when that good relationship breaks down for whatever reason and one of the parties no longer wants to stick to the terms of your agreement. A properly drafted agreement, created for your specific situation by a lawyer familiar with your circumstances and signed by each party with a certificate of independent legal advice, which only a lawyer can provide, is your best security and defence. With that type of agreement in place you can move on confidently from your past relationship and make a fresh start.
Finally, while nothing in family law is ever truly settled or final, especially where minor children are involved, a lawyer has the foresight to help you design and negotiate solutions that will work for your family into the foreseeable future, letting you move on with your life. For example, a lawyer will remind you to think about and make provision for important future milestones such as “where will the children be enrolled in school?” These questions may not come to mind for a self-represented litigant because it is not the urgent important issue to be decided right now. This means you will be back arguing or in court when school enrollment comes around. Lawyers use their experience gained from many years of practice and other cases to guide you towards resolving the issues that most often cause families difficulties down the road. On this type of file, it is my goal to help you come to a resolution that works for your family not just now, but into the future and to get you to a place where you can move on and no longer have lawyers or judges in your life. This result is achievable in most cases but it can be very hard to get to without the assistance of a lawyer.
3. A Lawyer has Time to Devote to your Case
This point may seem hard to believe or be counterintuitive because lawyers are often very busy and some can be hard to reach. However, that is mostly because of the nature of our work, not because we do not have time to devote to your case. A lawyer can be hard to reach because they are in client meetings, in court, mediation or settlement meetings with their clients, or are spending quiet time performing legal research or other work on their client’s files.
In addition to the lawyer themselves, most lawyers draw on a number of other staff and professionals to manage your family law matter. Most lawyers will have legal assistants, court runners to file documents at the courthouse and other government offices, and relationships with other experts who may be required to resolve your matter such as tax lawyers, mediators, realtors, and accountants. Some lawyers also use the services of external contract paralegals, external research lawyers or other non-lawyers who perform legal research, and others. Some lawyers will have articling or summer law students and depending on the size of the firm will have partners and/or associate lawyers. Most lawyers, whether working formally with other lawyers or not, have the ability to draw on an extensive network of other lawyers to discuss and brainstorm their files where a difficult or unusual legal issue appears.
The lawyer has set up their office and an entire structure to help shepherd your family law case from beginning to end. The lawyer and their staff spend 40+ hours per week helping their clients move their cases towards resolution and ensuring that resolution is properly documented to provide the clients with a level of comfort to be able to move on with their lives.
You, on the other hand, have better things to do with your time. You have a job, you want to spend time with your children, you want to get out of town for the weekend. Managing a family law file is very time consuming, especially for a self-represented litigant who is unfamiliar with the system. As one very simple example, filing documents at the courthouse may take 2 hours out of your day and can only been done during business hours. Unlike you, the lawyer’s court runner knows exactly which counter your documents need to be filed at and he is filing documents for 10 different cases at the same time leading to efficiencies that you can never achieve on your own as you only have one case. By retaining the lawyer, you gain access to this valuable service and have just saved yourself 2 hours. At my law firm, I will charge you only $10 for each document filed by my court runner in your case which I believe is an excellent value proposition. Other lawyers have similar charges for court running services.
There are also many steps that your lawyer can take on your matter on your behalf without you needing to be present at all. This includes some court appearances. If you have been representing yourself in your family law matter and you retain a lawyer to represent you, you will immediately see a huge difference in the amount of time your case takes out of your day-to-day life.
4. Your Lawyer is Impartial
This point should not be overlooked. This is probably the number one reason lawyers would never represent themselves but also probably the least well-known or understood reason to hire a lawyer by the general public.
Family law is one of the most emotionally charged areas of law as these are some of the cases that affect people’s lives most directly. Most people are not involved in a family law case because of a pleasant life event. We are most often dealing with the breakdown of a relationship and negotiating very difficult situations often times involving children. Even financial issues in family law are emotionally charged as the separation of assets and support payments affect what people’s lives will look like into the future. It is understandable that clients with family law cases are dealing with a range of raw emotions. Some of those emotions include hurt, anger, disappointment, vengefulness and fear.
Simply put, in this emotional state you cannot see the forest for the trees. A lawyer can. While a lawyer can be empathetic with the client’s situation, a lawyer cannot allow themselves to become emotionally involved in your case. In fact lawyers take this duty so seriously that our Code of Conduct dictates that we must decline to represent you if we cannot be impartial (usually because of a pre-existing relationship with you) or withdraw from representing you if we become emotionally involved for some reason and cannot provide you with impartial representation.
A lawyer has a duty to look out for your best interests. As part of that duty a lawyer will help educate and guide you as to what you can realistically expect in your case. A good lawyer will be tough with you when you need it and call you out on taking an unreasonable position from a place of fear or vengeance. At the end of the day, a good lawyer will help you to the best possible outcome taking into account all of the circumstances of your unique case and put you in a position to pick up the pieces and move on with your life.
5. A Lawyer may Save you Money
This final point may also seem hard to believe but it is true. Yes, lawyers are expensive, although maybe not as expensive as you think. A good lawyer will provide excellent value for the money spent and the decision to hire a lawyer may save you money in two key ways.
Firstly, a lawyer may achieve a better result for you than you could have achieved on your own. There are many financial aspects to family law cases, mostly in the areas of division of matrimonial property and support payments. A lawyer will be familiar with the law and arguments which may apply to your situation and assist you in achieving a good financial outcome. For example, did you know that there are special child support considerations for payors with incomes over $150,000? Even assuming you successfully researched the applicable law and arguments which would support your case, a lawyer will use their experience and skills to present your case to the court in a more polished and succinct manner which may lead to a better outcome than you could have achieved. A lawyer may also offer suggestions on how to structure financial settlements in ways that will lessen the impact on your day to day life. You may not have thought of these alternate structures without the assistance of a lawyer.
Finally, a lawyer may assist you in avoiding expensive awards of court costs. Did you know that in Alberta the general rule is that a successful party in a court application, hearing, or trial is entitled to “costs”? Costs awards in Alberta are at the discretion of the presiding judge but there is a standardized chart of costs which the courts often follow. Costs awards are often in the range of $500 for a simple application to thousands of dollars in a trial. For context, losing a one day trial will often result in a costs award made against you in the range of $5000-$10,000. A lawyer will help you to avoid these expensive orders being made against you in many different ways. Firstly, a lawyer will remind you of the potential of a costs award being made against you when discussing potential court applications. A lawyer will also advise you against bringing court proceedings you are sure to lose and will also advise you against taking unreasonable positions. You may not be able to easily identify court applications that you are sure to lose or positions that are unreasonable because you lack the knowledge of the law and the experience of a lawyer. Finally, a lawyer will help you to mitigate the risks of costs awards by encouraging you to make settlement offers or otherwise resolve your issue before a costs award is made against you.
Kelly and Christine are proud to share the exciting news that they will be the faculty members for the Business of Running a Law Practice Seminar. The seminar will be held on October 18th in Calgary, and October 25th in Edmonton. Taking you beyond the legal field, this seminar will focus on the business of running a law firm and legal practitioners in all stages of their career will benefit from attending.
From recruitment to retention, advertising to alternative fee structures, and everything in between, Kelly and Christine are excited to share the valuable lessons they’ve learned through their solo practices as well as through running the operations of the rapidly- growing Smith & Little LLP.
This exciting program will be chaired by David Tupper of Blake, Cassels & Graydon LLP
We are pleased to announce that we are now offering family law services on an exciting new value based fee pricing structure. This post discusses legal billing generally and my views on alternative billing structures as well as explains the two new types of value based fee pricing structures offered at Smith & Little LLP.
As a lawyer I am passionate about offering my clients value, professional services, integrity, and an ability to get things done. The standard billing model for legal services continues to be the billable hour model, especially in family law. The billable hour is a poor model for both the lawyer and the client. The billable hour rewards the lawyer for inefficiencies and presupposes that the client values the lawyer spending additional time on their file rather than the results accomplished. Why should you pay a junior lawyer on a time spent basis for getting up to speed on the law? Conversely, why should the experienced lawyer be punished for having expertise on the law related to your matter? Presumably as a client you value that knowledge and experience.
My biggest complaint with the billable hour model is that it is very difficult for clients to understand. Clients have a very difficult time anticipating the true amount of legal fees they are incurring as their matter moves forward. I truly believe that when a lawyer tells a client their hourly rate, it has little to no meaning to the client as the client has no idea how to assess how many hours the lawyer might spend on their file. Even among two lawyers charging the same hourly rate, total fees can vary wildly depending on their individual practice styles.
Since founding Smith & Little LLP, Christine and I have been driven to provide sensible and predictable billing practices and policies to our clients. Unlike many law firms, we do not charge for internal photocopies, printing, faxes, or long-distance telephone calls. These may seem like minor details but they can add up to hundreds of dollars on legal bills. We believe in providing our clients value both by providing exceptional service to them and by providing them with reasonable and fair bills.
What we do not believe in is nickel-and-diming our clients and generating profit through alternative business lines such as photocopy services. There are very excellent people in the business of providing photocopy services and we utilize their expertise to offer our clients value. In short, we are a law firm and not a photocopy shop. This is a fundamental belief which sets us apart in the way we do business.
Lawyers have for decades been talking internally about how to abandon the billable hour. However, lawyers as a group are very conservative and reticent to change. It is very easy to continue doing things the way they have always been done even for those of us who believe strongly that the billable hour is inefficient. It has traditionally been seen as very difficult to offer services in family law or litigation on a flat fee basis because these types of files are very unpredictable. Unlike a real estate file where it is easy for the lawyer to assess from the beginning exactly what steps need to be taken and how much time the average file will require to complete, a family law file can veer off in any number of directions and is highly contingent on the cooperation of the opposing party which can be difficult to predict.
We have spent a great deal of time preparing a very detailed value based fee price list and structure in order to offer our clients this alternative billing model on every kind of family law file, especially those which are very difficult, complex, and hard to predict. We believe very strongly that this model is a step towards the future of the legal profession as it provides for the delivery of legal services in a manner that serves our clients and their desire to know what they will pay to be represented.
You may have read my previous post on the topic of the value of representation in family law. As lawyers we spend a lot of time asking ourselves why people would pass up the opportunity to have competent legal representation and choose to take the great risk of representing themselves on such important matters. I believe this trend is partially driven by public perception that lawyers are unaffordable. I choose to believe that most potential clients understand at least in part the professionalism and skills that a lawyer brings to their matter. What they do not understand equally well is the value proposition being offered by the lawyer. As lawyers, this is in large part our fault. Our fees and bills are an opaque black box and we do nothing to illuminate the inside of that box for potential clients who have heard only horror stories of lawyers’ bills leaving their friends and family in endless debt. This is not good enough if we want to continue to serve the public and show potential clients the value that we can offer. While family law files are unpredictable, as an experienced lawyer I have a pretty good idea of how much your fees will be depending on which course your file takes. This is the information imbalance between the lawyer and the client that our new fee structure aims to erase. While the lawyer’s hourly rate has little to no meaning to the client, the lawyer has inside knowledge as to what it usually takes to complete certain steps in the litigation process.
For all of the reasons above Christine and I are very excited to offer our new value based fee services to the public. They bring to the table fairness and transparency for both the firm and the client. We cannot and will never be able to control the actions of an opposing party in a family law file. At the end of the day, if the other party is entrenched in their position and insists on your matter going to trial then your matter will have to go to trial or you will have to concede your position and agree to their demands. What we can do though is tell you from the beginning how much money we are going to charge you for each step in that process and each day that your matter is in trial. We believe strongly in empowering our clients to make informed decisions on all aspects of their matter. This fee structure is a step along that path and will give our clients that crucial information necessary to accurately assess the cost-benefit analysis of continuing along the litigation path or settling at each step of the proceedings.
Smith & Little LLP Value Based Fees Explained
We offer two types of value based fee rates on family law services: a la carte pricing and prix fixe pricing. Our goal is to offer clear, transparent, and predictable pricing despite the complexity of family law cases.
Most clients with complex or unpredictable matters will use a la carte pricing. Our prix fixe options are great for clients who need one particular task completed and appreciate the certainty of a set fee.
A la carte Pricing Model
Each a la carte client will pay an ongoing retainer fee plus flat rates for particular specialized documents and services as they are needed.
Our clients on this plan pay an ongoing retainer fee for each 3 months that their file is active. This fee covers standard ongoing maintenance and supervision of their file and includes standard communication and correspondence on their file as well as up to 3 hours of meeting time with us during each period. We have carefully tailored the included services so that most clients will have their ongoing standard needs met without exceeding these fees. We also recognize that there are times when family law files become very inactive; sometimes due to waiting for a court date or other future event. We do not charge an ongoing retainer fee during such periods of inactivity. Our clients value the predictability and certainty of fees this model offers them.
In addition to ongoing retainer fees, clients pay flat rates for each of the services required on their file beyond standard communications and correspondence. Generally the services for which additional fees are charged are document preparation, financial disclosure preparation, court appearances, and lawyer attendance at settlement or other meetings. These prices are disclosed upfront and our clients can make informed decisions before giving instructions on how to proceed. For example, our clients know exactly how much a court application is going to cost them before deciding whether to bring it.
Prix Fixe Pricing Model
We also offer special prix fixe all-inclusive packages for certain simple and common services. These include such services as uncontested divorces, simple separation agreements, and one and two day trials and family court hearings.
These packages are designed for simple straightforward matters and allow clients predictability in legal fees. There are many exclusions from these packages because they are only suitable for certain limited simple matters. Many of our packages include additional add-on services and fees for matters that are slightly more complex. If you matter does not fit into one of our packages we are pleased to offer you the value offered by our a la carte model. If you start out on a prix fixe package and your matter takes an unexpected turn we will convert your services to the a la carte model. Your fees will be what they would have been had you started with a la carte from the beginning, no hidden penalty.