Here is an extreme example. Recently, Judge Thomas Zampino, sitting in Superior Court in Newark, New Jersey, did a remarkable thing: he told the attorneys for both the husband and the wife that they were charging far too much money, and cut back their fees by three fifths! It was a fairly ordinary case, although it did drag on for three years before a three day trial was held. Each law firm decided to have an extra lawyer helping the lawyer who tried the case, so the Judge had four lawyers representing the two people. Huge overkill, and very expensive.
Wife’s attorney gave a bill for $148,606 in fees for the plaintiff and Husband’s attorney wanted $81,394.
The Judge said this was ”shocking” in a “cut and dry” case.
As the Judge said: “These parties were W-2 wage earners with assets for retirement and a marital home and a summer home. Their debt structure was ordinary, consisting of mortgages, an equity line and credit cards. There was nothing to authorize or explain almost a quarter of a million dollars in attorneys fees alone (see attached). This was a “cut and dry” case that could have been handled alone by a 5th year associate.” The Judge then decided that no more that Fifty Thousand Dollars attorney’s fees was owed by the Husband to his attorneys, and no more than Fifty Thousand Dollars was owed by the wife.
It gets worse: The Appellate Court decided that the Judge did not have the power to limit attorney’s fees in this fashion. Each of them would have to fight with their own attorney in another separate lawsuit, and other judges (not the divorce court judge) would decide how much was owed. The case is McClutchy v. McClutchy, A-5951-08. Technically, the Appellate Division is correct.
If I had to defend either husband or wife against those claims for attorney’s fees, I would call the divorce court judge as my first witness.
This kind of case gives people nightmares. Over $230,000 for attorney’s fees for an ‘ordinary’ divorce – no wonder people do not trust divorce attorneys!
There are some ways to get this under control, so that YOU do not get a huge bill.
1. You can insist that your lawyer send you a bill every month. Then read that bill carefully, not just for the total amount but to see what you are being charged for. Five or eight ‘half hour’ telephone calls a month will really add up. ‘Reviewing the file’ – what did the attorney do for you? Take a careful look.
2. If fees get too high, call your lawyer and talk about it! Get your attorney to explain what was done, and what is left to do and how much time and money that will take. No lawyer can tell you exactly what can happen, but you are entitled to a fair estimate and a clear explanation.
3. The most important point: hire an attorney who does not try to make as much money as possible from each client, who cares about the clients and treats them fairly. Talk to people who have used the attorney. Talk to the attorney before you hire, and have the attorney clearly explain what they think will have to be done for you, and what things you will have to fight about (the fighting is what costs so much money).
And even if it is a cliche: you have to be able to trust the lawyer.
Getting divorced is one of the most difficult things that you will have to do. A good lawyer will help you through it, and for a reasonable cost.