All clients would rather not pay more money in legal fees than necessary.
It is therefore surprising how many clients do not take some basic common-sense steps to try to keep costs down. Each case is different, not all lawyers run their practices the same way, and not all strategies will work for all files, but here are some ways clients can keep costs down:
1. Ask your lawyer what work you can do on your own file.
Gathering bank and investment statements, calling around to find an appraiser or expert to value assets, typing out a consent to travel letter, ordering a marriage certificate, requesting income tax returns from Revenue Canada, preparing a parenting plan - these are all steps that most clients can do on their own.
2. Use phone calls cautiously.
A phone call, even for a quick question, can often be longer than necessary. With fees charged on an hourly rate, clients have to be cautious that they do not use the conversation to also vent or share information they have already shared. Phone calls are a perfect way to update the lawyer will new and relevant information or discuss the pros and cons of the next step in the case. Do not call your lawyer immediately after an argument with your former spouse or family member when you are still upset.
3. Use email liberally.
Ensuring you have a secure email account, sending emails can be very cost-effective for clients. If you're unsure as to what information may be relevant now or in the future, sending the lawyer an email about an incident is helpful. It can be saved for later if it is not necessary now, and the lawyer will save a great deal of time just reading the email instead of taking notes while listening to the story on the phone.
4. Stay informed in less expensive ways.
The Court of King's Bench of Manitoba has an on-line registry where clients can see what documents have been filed on their case, what court appearances have been made and what court hearings are coming up. If a client is waiting for the Divorce Judgment to be signed by a Judge checking the registry to watch for the order is free, calling their lawyer daily to ask about it is not.
The Child Support Guidelines are on the Department of Justice website, as are tools to help you do your own Parenting Plan. The Canada Pension Plan website explains how to do a CPP split after separation. Family Resolution Services has information on their website as to parenting after separation.
5. Use the staff. A large portion of legal fees go to pay for a fully-staffed office, and the staff can assist clients in some ways that don't involve legal advice. Don't contact the lawyer to make an appointment or provide a change of address, as the receptionist can usually assist. If you need a copy of a document from your file or want to check on the whereabouts of a court filing or a cheque, call the lawyer’s assistant. Discuss billing questions or payment plans with the office bookkeeper.
6. Watch out for photocopying costs.
Most law firms will charge forty or fifty cents per page for photocopies. If you can photocopy your own tax returns and bank statements and drop them off, it will not only save the photocopy expense but also the time the lawyer or her assistant will spend copying them. If there is a large package of financial documents or a house appraisal that your lawyer needs to send to opposing counsel, consider dropping off two copies you made at home.
7. Hire another expert.
Instead of having your lawyer fill out all the financial statements, gather your bank and investment and credit card statements and calculate your monthly budget, use a bookkeeper or even a family member to help you. If you are self-employed, have your bookkeeper or accountant prepare and provide the financial information to your lawyer. Use an accountant to provide calculations on tax issues and give business advice.
Hire a mediator, parenting coach or counsellor to help work through parenting issues instead of discussing them between two lawyers at twice the price.
Talk to a financial planner or Trustee in Bankruptcy if you need help with your post-separation financial planning.
8. Make calls directly.
If you have hired an expert and you’re wondering about the status of their report, call the expert yourself instead of asking your lawyer to do it.
10. Saving the lawyer time saves the client money.
Please organize in some way the stack of bank statements or receipts for children’s expenses before dropping them off to your lawyer. Put a summary of the expenses with the math totals on the documents so the lawyer doesn't have to organize your paperwork.
Always leave your phone number when leaving a voicemail message or sending an email requesting a phone call. Give your lawyer all of your contact numbers. Check your mail and your email so the lawyer doesn't have to follow up.
11. Work together.
Separated spouses may not be able to agree on much, but normally they can agree that they’d rather not spend any more money on their separation than necessary.
Try mediating or going to arbitration over some, if not all, of the issues.
Instead of each spouse hiring an expensive business valuator or land appraiser or psychologist, consider hiring one independent expert to do a joint report.
Also, some basic cooperation can keep costs down. Have a four-way meeting instead of exchanging numerous lawyer letters over several months. Provide financial information upon request instead of making the other party force the issue with a court order.
12. Pick your battles.
Taking any issue to court will be costly. Sometimes clients lose perspective on whether the legal fees are worth getting the custom-made headboard or an extra $50 per month in spousal support. The court system is imperfect and does not dispense the type of justice many hurt spouses are looking for.
Parents sometimes say no almost immediately to whatever extra time, time trade or concession the other parent requests. For the sake of their wallet, as well as their mental health, parents should consider agreeing to the occasional request or letting petty conflicts go.
Separated spouses ae often understandably quite fixated on their household contents. The reality is that used furniture, yard decorations and tools are not worth as much as most folks think because they are valued at yard sale or auction prices. And unless they hire an expert to value the personal possessions and household goods, the Judges and the Master will not hear evidence about their values.
Before embarking on litigation over an issue, always ask about and seriously consider the cost. Even just exchanging bickering lawyer letters about relatively minor issues can add up. And some matters (such as arguing about debt) just may not be worth it financially in the end.