Are Attorney’s Fees in Child Custody Cases Negotiable?

Clients have more ability to negotiate attorney’s fees in child custody matters than they often realize. It is obvious to anyone who has had the burden of hiring a qualified attorney in a child custody matter, whether a first proceeding (a.k.a. initial adjudication) or a modification of custody/visitation that cost is always a serious obstacle-even insurmountable to the person living paycheck to paycheck. Depending on a variety of factors, it is typical that custody cases in Mississippi Chancery Courts can take anywhere between 25 and 150 hours of attorney time, and often even more if an appeal is necessary. Experienced custody attorneys usually charge between $200 and $300 per hour, so doing the math can be a scary thought, to put it gently.

It is important that you consider several factors in hiring a domestic lawyer, particularly when obtaining custody of children is the paramount goal. For one, do not hire an attorney who has practiced for a short duration of time (i.e., less than 6-8 years). Also, exercise extreme caution when considering an attorney who practices in multiple areas. Lawyers that litigate injury cases, criminal matters, contractual issues, and custody/domestic law are jacks of all trades, and masters of none. I have rarely observed an attorney that can wear multiple hats effectively. The best family lawyers are focused exclusively in that area, and I battle with the best domestic lawyers in Mississippi on a regular basis. The volume of statutes and case law within even one area of legal practice is difficult to ever have a firm grip upon…..the more areas of practice, the more irons on the fire, and the fire will extinguish itself. Buyer beware.

So what is the best advice, the lessons I can help the legal consumer to benefit themselves and, in kind, their children? The following is a list of basic precepts that will ensure you do not overpay for your domestic attorney, in no particular order;

Don’t attempt to negotiate the retainer AND the hourly rate, pick one and run with it. Since most domestic litigation exceeds the retainer, I would suggest you offer your prospective attorney 20% less than their advertised hourly rate. Even if you can only achieve a 15% reduction you will save a significant amount and make your retainer stretch further than it would have otherwise.

If a significant amount of travel will be needed to prosecute/defend your case, offer the lawyer only one-half of the hourly rate for litigating, my quarter says they will most often accept.

Offer to pay a small expense stipend/retainer ($350-$400) in exchange for a reduced retainer/hourly rate…this will cut much of the hassle lawyers face with seeking expense reimbursement. Time is money for attorneys, and time saved is money earned.

You have nothing to lose, except, well….hard-earned money. Don’t be afraid to ask. The worst you can expect is a resounding “No.” Most lawyers are realists, and we know that there are too dang many of us. You have more leverage in negotiating fees than you may expect.

Always take time to scrutinize your fee-statement. Lawyers are (believe it or not) usually fairly decent and ethical people. However, if something stands out as unusual or if there are an excessive amount of phone calls on your bill, don’t be afraid to question the veracity of those charges. It is not unusual for domestic cases to be 30-35% phone calls, but anything more is highly questionable at the least unless you require extraordinary client attention.

Hiring a domestic attorney can be a nerve-racking experience, and one that should not be taken lightly. Mississippians work hard for their money, and they deserve to feel that those concerns are being heard when hiring an attorney of any kind. Our office believes that when this issue is properly addressed, the lawyer-client relationship experiences growth in trust and understanding, making the unpleasant process of a domestic case a little easier on everyone involved.

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