A common complaint I receive is that a divorce attorney has overcharged a client. After a short conversation with the client, I usually discover the following: (1) the client selected a divorce attorney from a listing of top ranked attorneys from a publication or website; (2) the selected attorney charges $400 to $500 per hour; and (3) the client has incurred in excess of a $100,000 in legal fees, but the client’s spouse has incurred less than half that amount in attorney’s fees.
Was the client overcharged by the divorce attorney? Perhaps. But the underlying cause of the problem was that the client chose the wrong attorney.
The issue is whether the client is actually receiving superior legal services by retaining a divorce attorney that charges $400 or more per hour. The answer is usually not. First, the high price attorney is not a legal savant who attended Harvard or Yale Law School. Instead, the high price attorney probably attended a local law school, which limited his or her career legal options.
Secondly, the high price attorney is not twice as efficient as an attorney who charges $200 to $250 per hour. In fact, the opposite is true. These high priced attorneys have a strong financial incentive to perform unnecessary legal work to run up their clients’ bill, because the law firm has a huge monthly overhead. Renting a luxury suite in a downtown office building is not cheap.
These high price attorneys excel at one thing and one thing only, namely marketing themselves. These lawyers and law firms go to great lengths to create the appearance that they are successful and warrant their high fees. They market themselves by displaying their extravagant lifestyle. They drive luxury vehicles, wear designer clothes and expensive jewelry, and decorate their offices with expensive art.
Many divorce lawyers are living beyond their means to sustain the illusion that they are financially successful. This causes the divorce attorney to take on more cases than he or she can possibly handle. The hallmark of an overextended lawyer is providing low quality legal service to a high number of clients and charging excessive fees.
In conclusion, you cannot measure the quality of the legal services that you will receive by an attorney’s hourly rate. In fact, there may be an inverse relationship between a divorce attorney’s hourly rate and the quality of the legal services rendered. Some divorce attorneys are able to charge a high hourly rate, because clients are willing to pay a premium to be represented by an attorney who they believe has superior legal skills. However, the attorney’s perceived competitive advantage will be completely neutralized if the attorney has too many cases to devote sufficient attention to each client.