Flat Fees: Why? Why Not? How Do They Work at Brown Law?

Divorce is one of the most uncertain periods (if not the most uncertain period) of time in a person's life.

Your most important relationship is ending. Kids are struggling to cope with things. Emotions are all over the place. Friendships seem uncertain. Spiritually, there is a very real sense of loss, and possibly confusion. Financially, there are some serious questions.

If you're like most people, you want to find certainty among chaos. 

Often, lawyers aren't very helpful in finding certainty. For example, when you ask an attorney how much a divorce will cost, you'll probably hear something like, "I don't know," or, "It depends."

Then the attorney will tell you to pay a large retainer and he or she will bill you however much it costs to work on your case. And by bill, the attorney means you will be billed for each individual task. Every email. Every phone call. Every letter. Everything.

There Is a Different Way: Flat Fees

There is another way to purchase legal services: flat fees.

Flat fees allow you to control the cost of your case because you know the cost of everything upfront before any work is done.

Flat fees work like this: you decide what you would like your attorney to do based on a flat fee price, pay that price, and then your attorney does what you agreed to. It's really that simple.

Here are a couple examples of what I'm talking about

Scenario 1: Imagine your spouse has already filed for divorce, and you need to file something otherwise you'll default. You need an attorney to help you file an Answer and Counter-Petition. At Brown Law, there is one flat fee to get that done, beginning to end. No individual charges for emails or phone calls, just one flat fee.

Scenario 2: Here's another example. You like how your attorney helped you with your Answer and Counter-Petition and you want him or her to help you with mediation. At Brown Law, there is a flat fee that will take you through the mediation process, from drafting Financial Declarations and Initial Disclosures, to deciding on a mediator, to attending mediation, and (assuming you agree on things in mediation) preparing paperwork to finalize your divorce. One flat fee covers the entire process.

What Are the Advantages of Flat Fees?

Flat fees present some serious advantages over the traditional billable hour model, for example:

1. You're not giving your attorney a blank check.

You might think I'm exaggerating here, but under the billable hour model, you are really giving your attorney a blank check. Your attorney does whatever and then bills you for it after. If that's not the definition of a blank check, I'm not sure what is.

2. Flat fees remove risk from you and put it on your attorney.

With the billable hour model, all risk is on you. For example, if your spouse is nuts and it takes forever to get anything done, that risk's on you. If you pay a flat fee, the risk of your nutso soon-to-be-ex making things take too long is on your attorney.

3. Flat fees align client and attorney interests.

You want your case finished as quickly as possible. With flat fees, your attorney does as well -- not so much with the billable hour model. There is a pretty clear incentive for your attorney to be reasonable in negotiations, use technology and systems to be more efficient, and use time wisely to get your case done.

4. Flat fees allow you to make good decisions based on solid numbers.

Think you need to file Temporary Orders or get a custody evaluation? With flat fees, you'll know upfront how much those things will cost so you can decide whether it's worth it to you and your family. No more guessing and hearing "it depends" when you are trying to make a major decision about your case.

5. You won't feel like you're being nickled-and-dimed.

When you get a bill and see a charge for every email and two-minute phone call, you can't help but feel like you're being nickled-and-dimed. Now, attorneys sell expertise and time, so it makes sense that everything they do is billed (just like people are paid for every minute they work at an hourly job), but it still sucks seeing every email billed on an invoice. With flat fees, there is no nickle-and-diming. It's all part of the flat fee.

6. You won't have to worry about calling your attorney.

I can't tell you how many times we've found out critical information from clients (like, really, really important information) in mediation or at a court hearing. When we ask clients, "Why didn't you tell us about this before now?" they often respond by saying, "Well, I didn't want to be charged to call and tell you about it." This is a perfect example of how the billable hour model puts clients and attorneys at odds with each other. Flat fees fix this. You don't have to worry about being billed extra for sharing critical information with your attorney.

7. Your relationship with your attorney won't turn south because you don't pay your bill.

A major problem with the billable hour model is relationships sour if a client doesn't pay his or her bill. If you get behind on things (easy to do when you don't know how much things will cost), your attorney will either stop work on your case or will call and bug you incessantly about payment. This tends to create bad blood between client and attorney. That's never a good thing. Flat fees solve this problem because you pay for everything up front.

8. It gives you peace of mind.

Knowing what things cost and knowing you can control the cost of your case gives peace of mind. And during divorce, peace of mind is priceless.

Are There Disadvantages to Flat Fees?

There are some potential disadvantages to flat fees, for example:

1. If you're case is ultra-simple, you might pay a lot with flat fees.

If your case is truly easy peasy simple and will take almost no work to get done, then flat fees are probably not a great way to go. Flat fees are calculated on the basis that work will need to be accomplished to get the case done. So, super simple cases are usually best done on a billable hour basis.

(Note: I've had lots of people in my office tell me their case "will take no time." Soon after, things blow up and things are not so simple anymore. This is why putting risk on your attorney instead of on yourself is very often a wise choice.)

2. You pay for the services you choose upfront and in full.

One thing about the billable hour model is you get to pay for services after they're already done. This model is essentially putting you in debt to your attorney, and some people are okay with that because they're okay with debt in general. By contrast, with flat fees you choose what you want your attorney to do, and then pay for that upfront. It can be difficult to come up with money upfront, and that is a trade-off with flat fees. That said, you don't make your attorney your lender, and you don't have to endure the strained relationship that comes with your attorney calling you constantly like a collection agency. Do you really want to have the same relationship with your lawyer that you have with your bank? No, no one does. And flat fees make sure you don't.

3. There may be more disadvantages to flat fee billing, but none I think are worth taking the time to discuss here. If you want to study it out more, there are undoubtedly sites online. 

At Brown Law, Can I Choose Between the Billable Hour Model and Flat Fees?

Yes. We give every client the choice between the billable hour model and flat fees. We want you to feel comfortable with the billing plan you choose.

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