August 09, 2010 (Original publish date) • By Dennis Beaver
Divorce for some represents the ultimate in sadness and failure. Yet, for many couples, it is a realization they simply should not live together and need to move on with their lives.
That’s how it was – at first- for Hanford residents Ron and Peggy, who contacted You and the Law because they felt something was very wrong in the way their divorce was being handled by their lawyers.
“We worked out the details of our property division and were thinking of doing the divorce ourselves when friends said we should each at least consult with a different lawyer. That’s what we did, then everything fell apart, and we were into a horribly expensive, embarrassing, drawn-out fight over all the things we had earlier agreed on!” they told me.
My office was provided with copies of everything the couple’s lawyers had sent them. Within minutes, it was clear they were lambs for the financial slaughter. Beginning with retainer agreements which called for such clearly unpermitted things as “non-refundable attorney fees,” to the filing of unneeded restraining, stay away, support orders and a lot more, this couple were out over $30,000 in attorney fees.
Billing statements revealed such things as “Discussing your case with my secretary” on eight separate dates at $150 each time! Or, 15 separate bills for “case review” at $75 each. There were bills for creating bills!! Bills for “Discussing my bill with client.” They were charged for “computer time in drafting pleadings.” All of this is improper.
A lawyer should not bill a client for secretarial time unless there is some specific task performed and agreed upon in the retainer agreement. Secretarial time is considered overhead, and should not generally be billed for anyway. You should never bill a client for preparing the client’s bill! Charging for using an already-installed word processing program on your computer? A royal rip-off!
They have since fired their attorneys and gone back to square one. They have also filed a complaint with the State Bar, and are going to contact their local bar association to set up fee arbitration, in an effort to recover some of what they have lost.
“How could all of this happen without warning bells going off?” one could easily ask.
“We are teachers, not very confrontational people, and trusting. The lawyers kept on telling us: ‘This is the process, it’s expensive but it’s what we have to do.’ We should have known better. We should have probably gotten a second opinion.”
Warning signs – how to protect yourself
Are there clear warning signs that your lawyer considers you the Goose that Laid the Golden Egg? Can you protect yourself? “Yes, and in both instances you can take steps to protect yourself from being victimized,” stated Northern California family law judge “Sandra,” (not her real name, who has been a resource of this column for years) when we discussed this case.
“Divorce is one of the most brutal, nasty areas of the law. Divorce lawyers as a group aren’t pussycats and uncontrolled, can spend a client’s money like it’s water. For that reason, be sure to have spending limits written into the retainer agreement and insist in writing on obtaining your approval before scheduling such things as: Depositions, preparation of interrogatories, hiring of all experts, including private investigators.”
“While there are indeed times when restraining or stay away orders are necessary, understand they are not a magic bullet and can often produce the opposite result. So, don’t be quick to spend several thousand dollars on going back to court for something which might not be granted and which may not even help you.”
“Understand that your lawyer has a duty to tell you the truth, not enable bad behavior. So, if your lawyer tells you to knock it off and grow up, you’ve probably got a very good lawyer. But if deep down you know that what you are doing is destructive and wrong – and especially if you’ve been told so by people whose opinion you value – but your lawyer enables you to be a jerk, you are being taken advantage of and it’s going to cost you plenty. Change lawyers!
Reason for optimism
While Ron and Peggy stated their intention of finishing the divorce by themselves, I had a feeling that it would never take place. “Most of our 25 years of marriage were good, and I just don’t know what went wrong,” Peggy told me.
They were $30,000 poorer, but their body language, the care, the softness in their faces when they looked at each other, all of it left me wondering where life would take this nice couple. To court, I hope, where they will file a dismissal of their divorce.
Dennis Beaver practices law in Bakersfield and enjoys hearing from his readers. Contact Dennis Beaver.