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How much does a Family Lawyer cost?

Podcast Episode by Pearsons Lawyers
3 January 2021

(Transcription)

Leanne Abela:
Hello, I’m Leanne Abela.

Joe Schepis:
And I’m Joe Schepis, welcome to Pearsons Law. Today’s podcast is, How much do family lawyers cost? Which is a very good question, Leanne, why don’t you give us a little bit of information about that.

Leanne Abela:
Oh, well, it’s the information we give people the first appointment. I find it really interesting when people come to the first appointment and they don’t raise the issue of cost, and I’m thinking, “God, I would want to know.” Whenever I go anywhere, when I go to the dentist, when I go to the hairdresser, what’s it going to cost me and-

Joe Schepis:
That’s because we are Italian and Maltese and that’s what we do. It’s cultural.

Leanne Abela:
Yes.

Joe Schepis:
We love doing that.

Leanne Abela:
In fact, we like to bargain.

Joe Schepis:
Absolutely.

Leanne Abela:
It’s about an orange and an apple, right?

Joe Schepis:
That’s right, we want to know where we stand.

Leanne Abela:
That’s right.

Joe Schepis:
So as you do, Leanne, it’s our practice that in the first interview we tell our clients, at the end of it, “So let’s talk about costs,” and you see this relief over their face, so-

Leanne Abela:
Absolutely.

Joe Schepis:
I’m not going to talk about it, but you’re going to talk about it. And so-

Leanne Abela:
Thank God, you can see the look on their face.

Joe Schepis:
Absolutely. So we tell them about the hourly rate and that’s scary. And then we say, “Well, let me put that in some sort of context, if you’re matter is a simple matter, and we have some discussions and negotiations, we reach an agreement, we document that. Then it’s going to cost you somewhere between A and B.”

Leanne Abela:
Yeah, that’s right. But that’s if it’s a consent order or a binding financial agreement that finalizes the matter without a lot of difficulty or complex financial matters, and it’s pretty straightforward and the parties reach agreement. Because often, of course, I’m saying to clients, “Look, your case is not complicated, but boy, you two personalities seem complicated.” Not because I’ve got both personalities in front of me, I haven’t, I’ve only got one of the parties in front of me. So it’s not the issues that can make a matter complicated, it’s the personalities of the people.

Joe Schepis:
Including the lawyers sometimes.

Leanne Abela:
Including the lawyers, that’s right.

Joe Schepis:
Sometimes the lawyers can’t communicate for whatever reason, and given bad advice perhaps to their client. And you’re stuck in a situation of conflict when you really shouldn’t be.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah, I had a client yesterday who said to me, “Look, my husband said to me, when I separated that I will get nothing. And I know he won’t settle. It doesn’t matter how many times I compromise, he will change the goalposts.” Now she said that to me, I don’t know, six months ago and she’s absolutely right. It doesn’t matter what concession we make. It doesn’t matter how we change the configuration of the settlement to either take more in cash, less in super et cetera. He just won’t settle because he wants to punish her for ending the relationship.

Leanne Abela:
So I always ask a client, “Tell me if there’s any agenda here. What is it that I need to know?” Not that I’m ever really interested in why parties separated, because of course, it doesn’t matter why parties separated. The court doesn’t really need to know whether there are extramarital relationships or whatever, unless of course, it’s matters that relate to the care of the kids, such as drugs or alcohol, et cetera. But generally there is another agenda in the event that matters don’t settle, and often it is punishment or resentment, particularly if there’s another party.

Joe Schepis:
Yeah, and those sorts of agendas, they just infiltrate the whole negotiating process. Well the good news is, in those situations, that’s why the court exists. You’re forced to go to court. Then you’re forced to come to the negotiating table. You’re forced to go through the process. And we’ve had cases as you know, Leanne, here at the office where even if a party doesn’t cooperate in the court process, the court will list it for an undefended matter. They will make orders. They’ll get the sheriff out and issue warrants for people to get evicted from their home, sell the home. The end result will be that there is something…

Joe Schepis:
But also there’s good news that in some situations like for intervention orders or divorces, we tell clients there’s a fixed fee. We tell them how much they’re going to cost and they know how much they are. But in the generality, in the main work that we do, it’s the hourly rate. And the good thing is that because we’ve got a team of lawyers ranging from partners like you and I down to the more junior lawyers, we have the team approach, we can get the less experienced junior lawyers to do work that’s appropriate for them. And that’s a saving for the client.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah, that’s what we call the grunt work, which includes the issuing of subpoenas or it might include inspecting subpoenas or indexing discoverable documents by grunt work. It’s legal work and it’s time consuming work, but you don’t want to be paying the most expensive person in the firm to do that work. And then what we do is we analyze it and strategize it. So it is that leveraging that makes it more affordable for clients.

Joe Schepis:
Absolutely, and also what we do is… part of our communication is, we send regular bills to clients on a fortnightly or monthly basis so that they can, one, know how much they’re spending, two, budget for it and understand what’s happening for their dollars.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah, we’re blessed, I mean, we’ve had Christine Kennedy of our office, who’s been with our firm for 36-

Joe Schepis:
35-

Leanne Abela:
35, 36 years and she does all of our bills, she answers all the client’s cost queries, all the bills are itemized. She is a gem. So clients feel very aware of what their costs are and how it’s all traveling and what they’re spending on their matter.

Joe Schepis:
In addition to our costs, of course, we pay other people to do work on some of the files, for example, there’s court fees that are mandatory that we have to pay-

Leanne Abela:
Government fees, government taxes really, aren’t they?

Joe Schepis:
Yeah, pretty much. There’s process servers, there’s valuations sometimes, sometimes we engage a clinical psychologist to do what’s called a family report and they got to be paid obviously-

Leanne Abela:
Well, half-half, yourself and the other party.

Joe Schepis:
And then some evaluation, there’s a mediator that’s got to be paid.

Leanne Abela:
Sometimes the venue, we try to avoid that, but sometimes there might be a small cost for a venue.

Joe Schepis:
And then you’ve got barristers who might attend or be engaged to go to court. So those sorts of expensive court disbursements, obviously they’re passed onto the clients. But even in the more difficult cases where we know where the matter should result, we know where this matter should resolve and should be out of the system. But because somebody is not playing ball, you have to go through the process. We do offers of compromise early on, put the other party at notice that if they force us to go to court, when we get a result, which is as good as, or better than our offer of sediment, then we can hand that letter up to the judge and say, “Listen, judge, we were prepared to settle on this proposal a year ago, 18 months ago, we’ve had to spend so many tens of thousands of dollars. We were forced to come here against our better judgment. We want the other party to pay our costs.” And courts are very, very accommodating in making someone pay costs if they’ve been incurred unnecessarily.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah, that’s right. So they’re very aware of them. We get cost orders, we do pretty well. I was going to say not rarely, we get them pretty regularly really.

Joe Schepis:
What I love at the end of a matter, I mean, I don’t know if you do this, but when a client comes in, they’d spend the first half hour, 45 minutes, they give you the scenario. Usually you know 90% of the information you need to know and you give them a range. Then you go through the litigation. Might be two or three years that you’re involved in negotiating-

Leanne Abela:
Now don’t be scared by that because that’s the rare cases, two or three years, right?

Joe Schepis:
That’s right. I like to go back to my initial notes and say, “Well, what did I tell this client way back then?” And invariably it’s within the range.

Leanne Abela:
Oh yeah, I love saying-

Joe Schepis:
It’s scary.

Leanne Abela:
I told you so to the client, I love it. I love it. And so it’s not to say that costs aren’t a scary prospect for clients. They are a scary prospect and some clients are really concerned, they’ll come and see me and say, “Listen, how am I going to afford to pay these fees?” Well, there are a number of ways, they do pay as they go along. If they can’t pay as they get along, there are two other methods. One, we can get what’s called litigation funding. That is if your partner holds the bucket of money, either in a company account or in a trust fund or in a bank account, then we can get litigation funding, a sum of money to help you pay your legal fees.

Joe Schepis:
In other words, that’s an order from the court that the other party has to pay you a lump sum to assist you with your costs.

Leanne Abela:
Alternatively, there are instances where we can take payment at the end of the case. We put a caveat over the property, there is a small surcharge and we get payment when you get payment at the end of the case or when you refinance the house. So there are lots of options and there’s very rarely instances where clients are in a position where they can’t afford legal fees. But if that is the case, even at the end of the first appointment, which is free, we will direct them to various services that may be available to them, where they may be able to get free legal advice, such as Women’s Legal Service or Community Legal Centre or Legal Aid. So we’ll direct people in that instance, we won’t leave them high and dry.

Joe Schepis:
Yeah, so costs are extremely important and it’s important that clients know how much they’re going to pay for a number of reasons. So if you want to know more about your matter, costs and the like; come to Pearson’s Lawyers and our number is 1300-699-688

Leanne Abela:
For your first free appointment.

Joe Schepis:
Thank you for listening.

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