Beat the high cost of lawyers
When Amy S. wanted to file for a divorce, she
couldn't afford the $200 an hour legal fee one family law attorney
had quoted her. With the assistance of the self-help center in her
local courthouse, she purchased a packet of "Dissolution of
Marriage with Dependent Children" forms and decided to represent
"At first it was a very scary idea," says
Amy. "Luckily, my husband and I had come to an agreement on
most of the issues between us, and neither one of us felt we could
afford to hire an attorney."
"I filled out all the forms with the help of
the paralegal at the Self Help Center in the Palm Beach County courthouse.
She told me exactly which forms had to be filed first, explained
how the process works and went over the papers to be sure everything
was filled in correctly.
"I paid the $273.50 filing fee and the $20.37
sheriff's fee to have my husband served with the divorce papers.
We went to the court-ordered mediation where we worked out child
support and visitation. The mediator wrote up the agreement. I filed
that with the court and requested a final hearing."
"I can't say it was easy, I had to do all the
legwork, but I am satisfied with the outcome and saved a lot of
money in lawyer fees."
Billable hours add up
Amy is not alone. It's expensive to hire a lawyer. The median
hourly billing rate for law firm partners is $250 an hour and a
little less for associates, $170 an hour, according to the Altman
Weil 2003 Survey of Law Firm Economics. Rates vary by region, with
the highest hourly rates for partners and associates reported in
the Middle Atlantic region.
Many people either can't afford the expense or want
to handle some legal issues on their own. Whether it's in family
law, small claims, bankruptcy, real estate or a landlord-tenant
dispute, there are an increasing number of alternatives to the high
cost of hiring a lawyer.
Here's a sampling of alternative services you might
try when you are faced with a problem that requires legal assistance.
2. Self help or self service centers
3. Court sponsored
5. Senior citizen
6. Lawyer referral
7. Legal hotlines
8. Legal Aid
9. Prepaid legal
Mediation is a voluntary and typically confidential process
in which a neutral third-party facilitator helps people discuss
difficult issues and negotiate an agreement.
The parties create their own solutions. The mediator
has no decision-making power over the outcome.
Increasingly people are being encouraged to try mediation
to resolve almost any dispute, says Gregory Firestone, Ph.D., director
of the University of South Florida Conflict Resolution Collaborative.
According to the National
Center for State Courts, 16 states require some form of mandatory
mediation, 16 more have voluntary or discretionary use of mediation
in cases involving divorce, child custody, small claims and landlord-tenant
"Mediation, when successful, is usually
far less expensive and takes less time than litigation," says
Firestone, who has been a family mediator for more than 20 years.
"The parties can maintain greater control of
their lives and make their own decisions. This is especially true
in family cases where parties can custom-tailor solutions to meet
the needs of their own families.
"In many cases, mediation also serves to reduce
the conflict between parties in comparison to litigation,"
"Agreements made by the people involved usually
work better than those imposed by the courts. And, the mediated
agreements are usually confidential, whereas what goes on in a courtroom
is typically not," Firestone adds.
Costs: The costs of mediation vary widely, depending
on the complexity of the case and the experience and training of
the mediator. Mediators come from a variety of professions including
law, social work, psychology, ministry and others. Most private
mediator fees range between $100 and $300 per hour. Some courts
offer mediation services at a reduced cost.
2. Self help or self service centers
A self-help or self-service center is a court-sponsored center
designed to help individuals who have decided to represent themselves
(pro se) without the assistance of an attorney.
These centers generally offer forms and instructions
for filing family court petitions, such as divorce, modification
of child support or custody, motions, complaints and responses for
eviction and ejectment, as well as offer notary services and referrals
to other court services.
In 1992, Maricopa County, Ariz., opened the first
self-service center in the nation to assist litigants who were representing
themselves, setting the model for other jurisdictions.
"We discovered that there were a significant
proportion of people who were representing themselves in our courts,"
says Judge Rebecca Albrecht, who set up the Maricopa County project.
"It was a problem for the courts because self-represented
people didn't understand the procedures and would come to hearings
unprepared, expecting that we would guide them through the system,
and we expected them to do what lawyers did."
"We wanted to find a way for the system
to work for everybody," she says.