Ranking Legal Processes by Cost

Oct 1, 2009

The television show “20/20” is planning a story about couples that are staying together only because they cannot afford to get divorced.  (They are actually looking for couples to share their stories on the topic if you are interested).  There are certainly people that are so financially strapped that they cannot afford to properly address their family related legal issues. However, I suspect that most people think that they cannot afford to resolve these issues because they do not know about the range of processes and costs available to them.

The fact is that you have many options to choose from.  Each has advantages and disadvantages.  And the costs involved with each process will differ from case to case.  But, in general, they can be roughly ranked from least to most expensive.  The options and their rough cost are as follows (from lowest cost to highest cost):

1.  Work It Out at the Kitchen Table:  This is by far the least expensive option.  It involves you and your spouse or ex-spouse sitting down and coming to an agreement on your own.  You don’t have to pay lawyers if you choose this method.  While there may be costs down the road due to the lack of a formal agreement, the up front costs, at least, are nil.


2.  Private Party Mediation:  This involves you and your spouse or ex-spouse hiring a third party (can be a lawyer or a non-lawyer) who is trained as a mediator to help you identify the issues to be resolved and possible resolutions to those issues.  You both meet with the mediator in one or more conferences to try to come to an agreement on the issues.  If your mediator is a non-lawyer,  then both parties may hire their own attorney to review and advise them regarding any proposed agreements that are reached.  There is some cost involved in hiring a mediator and potentially attorneys to review an agreement.  However, limiting a lawyer’s involvement to reviewing a potential agreement will generally reduce your legal costs.


3.  Private Arbitration:  Arbitration involves hiring a neutral third party (usually an attorney) to hear each side of your case and then make a decision that both parties have agreed to accept.  You can go through this process with or without a lawyer.  The cost is obviously lower if you do not hire attorneys to help present your side of the issues.  However, due to the looser rules and less formal procedures of arbitration, this process is generally a cheaper means of obtaining a decision than going to court.


4.  Collaborative Law:  Collaborative Law requires each party to hire an attorney trained in the Collaborative Process.  But, it does not involve paying for a neutral party to mediate or arbitrate your case.  Further, Collaborative cases generally reach a resolution in far less time than other processes.  So, clients pay significantly less in attorney fees in the end.


5.  Mediation with Attorneys:  This process is just like private mediation, but both parties hire attorneys to help them present their case.  This requires legal fees that would not be incurred in private party mediation.  And, it requires the parties to hire a neutral third party mediator.  But, the efficiency compared to litigation makes this a relatively economical choice.


6.  Attorney Negotiation:  This process can vary in cost.  It involves hiring attorneys to negotiate for you.  This typically involves the attorneys exchanging proposals over the phone or in writing.  So, you will pay legal fees.  Sometimes this process works quickly, and costs are kept relatively low.  However, unless both attorneys are truly skilled negotiators (see earlier posts on this topic), then this process can drag on for a long time.  The longer this takes, the more expensive it gets.  My experience is that without the structure of mediation or arbitration, this process can gradually become very expensive.


7.  Litigation:  This is, by far, the most expensive option.  Each party typically hires an attorney.  The amount of work that each attorney must put into a case to prepare it for a trial is enormous.  Most attorneys charge by the hour in these cases ($200 to $400+ per hour in Raleigh).  So, legal fees can skyrocket.  Few, if any costs are shared by the parties in litigation.  Simply put:  War is expensive.


Each person’s case is different.  The facts of your particular situation determine which of the above processes will be the most cost effective for your case.  But, you should investigate and consider all of the less expensive options for resolving your case instead of assuming that you cannot afford to properly address your legal issues. 

Please note that nothing on this blog should be considered legal advice and that viewing the information on this blog does not create an attorney-client relationship between us. You are advised to consult with an attorney to confirm the current state of any legal information contained in this blog, as the law constantly changes.

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