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Firms explore flat rate for divorces

Susan A. Hansen

Susan A. Hansen

The idea of charging a flat rate for divorces may sound absurd to most family law attorneys, but the concept is starting to take hold in Wisconsin.

By offering a flat-fee divorce, firms can entice clients that may otherwise try to do a pro se divorce. Clients benefit from knowing exactly what their cost will be.

But some attorneys say they can’t imagine offering a flat rate. Even firms that do have strict requirements on what is and is not covered.

Horizons Law Group offers flat fee options for both mediations and contested divorce cases.

Prices are set dependent upon whether children are involved in the case, said firm founder Michelle B. Fitzgerald.

For example, a contested divorce involving kids would cost about $4,000, but that quote does not include pretrial or trial services.

A new retainer agreement would be reached before trial, at which point the client can take a different flat fee or switch to an hourly rate, which ranges between $175 and $250 per hour.

“Given the marketplace, I think we’re still on the low end,” Fitzgerald said. “But I would say it has worked out pretty well for us.”

Three-lawyer family law firm Hansen & Hildebrand is developing a flat-fee divorce mediation model for clients who favor mutual and low-conflict resolutions.

Partner Susan A. Hansen said the firm is still in the “brainstorming” phase as far as costs, and attorneys will assess each case to decide whether a flat fee is a viable option.

Variables such as assets, children and the age of the client will be determining factors as to how much is charged for a mediation.

Michelle B. Fitzgerald

Michelle B. Fitzgerald

“There will be incremental flat fees to take into account the nature of the issues to be resolved,” Hansen said, noting that traditional hourly rates can price people out of legal representation.

State Bar of Wisconsin Family Law Section Chair Ellen M. Frantz agreed that cost can be a deterrent for hiring a divorce lawyer, evidenced by the growing number of people who appear pro se.

Flat rates provide an attractive option for those who assume attorneys are too expensive, she said, and also allow lawyers to market mediation in a different way. And, it prevents someone from making a mistake an attorney could have avoided.

“Someone who presents a model that looks like I know what I’m getting into for the consumer, may be appealing to those folks who can’t afford or choose not to hire legal representation,” Frantz said.

But outside of non-adversarial mediation, attorneys questioned the ability to provide reasonable cost certainty to clients in divorces.

Murphy Desmond family law attorney Stephen C. Beilke said it would be “suicide” to do a flat fee structure because of all the unpredictability involved in divorces.

“I’ve not met one attorney that is looking at that,” he said of a flat-fee model. “An hourly basis across the board is the only fair way for clients and attorneys.”

A flat fee for litigated divorce cases is a tough sell, even for Hansen, who said there is a risk of overcharging and undercharging clients. For example, just because two cases involve a recently unemployed client with two young children, that doesn’t mean an attorney will spend the same amount of time on each.

She said crafting a fee structure for mediation requires more than just “picking a number.”

While it’s true that no two cases are the same, there are predictable elements in divorce cases which attorneys can use as a basis for flat rates, Minnesota divorce lawyer Robert W. Gadtke said.

Last month his firm, Gadtke & Beyer, began offering clients the option to pay a flat fee for representation in contested divorce cases.

Certain things, such as if a temporary hearing is needed, can be predicted and Gadtke said in his experience, the vast majority of people want their disputes resolved as soon as possible.

“The fear is always that somehow the hourly billing rate keeps family law clients in check,” he said. “I just think that is not accurate.”

Fitzgerald said one of the benefits is that the flat fee provides another option for the client, rather than being locked into an unknown expense.

For her and her associates, on occasion, the work done on a case will exceed the amount charged, but for the most part, it’s been a worthwhile alternative.

“There are a few that are going to be over, time-wise,” she said, “but a lot more that are under.”

Jack Zemlicka can be reached at jack.zemlicka@wislawjournal.com.

Flat fee benefits

Despite the unpredictability and the chance of making less money than through the billable hour, supporters of a flat fee for divorces suggest that there are benefits to the model.

Cost certainty: An attractive option for clients who may have otherwise elected to not hire an attorney

Client communication: Without the “meter running” clients are more willing to discuss case details with attorneys, which can lead to a quicker resolution

Transparency: Flat fees broker more trust between a lawyer and the client if the individual knows at the outset how much representation will cost

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