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Could Flat-Fee Billing Change The Landscape Of Family Law?

A growing trend among law firms in Oregon and around the country is the use of “flat-fee” billing. This method of payment involves firms setting a standard fee for performing various types of legal services, sort of like a “menu” of the assistance they can offer to clients. The firm’s “menu” can dictate the level of service they offer for various legal issues and if any additional charges could accrue for contingencies that may arise while handling a matter.

Varied Viewpoints

Opinions on these types of alternative billing arrangements have been mixed. Some attorneys feel that flat-fee billing doesn’t adequately recognize the level of in-depth thought, research, analysis and preparation that they put in on every matter they handle. This sentiment might be of particular concern to family law attorneys, who oftentimes have to think not only of their individual client, but also children and other family members who will also be affected.

Others worry that flat-fee billing and other alternative billing arrangements (like handling all of a business’ legal needs for a set time with the agreement that senior attorneys review all matters but the bulk of the work is done by less expensive staff members at a lower rate) essentially turn every case into a “contingency” fee case, something that might violate public policy. They are also concerned that there may come a time when less and less work is done by actual attorneys, instead seeing firms hire paralegals and clerks to handle the brunt of the work since workers in those positions are usually paid much less than lawyers.

Those in favor of this method see it as bringing clarity to potential clients who might otherwise be hesitant to hire counsel for fear that they couldn’t afford it and of simplifying law firm billing processes by charging one base rate instead of different hourly rates for each staff member and not charging for every individual filing, exhibit preparation, letter, phone call or email.

Real-World Examples

For example, an Oregon family law firm could charge $500 for an uncontested divorce. This means that the couple has already come to agreement on the major issues (like property division, custody arrangements and child/spousal support) and essentially needs an attorney to ensure that all legal documentation of the divorce is properly prepared and filed with the court. The fee would cover the attorney’s time to review proposed arrangements to ensure that they are valid and do not violate any laws or public policies, draft legal dissolution papers and file them with the local county court’s office.

Other variations on flat-fee billing are also possible. Some firms might choose to offer levels of service with different actions performed by the attorneys. An example of this would be where the attorney meets with the client (or communicates via phone or email) to learn about the facts of the case, fills out necessary court paperwork, then mails it to the client who then files it with the court and attends any necessary hearings. Another firm might offer those services plus a set number of hearings where the attorney would accompany the client when appearing before a judge.

The Current Legal Landscape

At present there is no data on how many firms in Oregon – or even in America – offer flat-fee or alternative billing options. That being said, it has been a lively topic for debate in the legal community, and it has been implemented successfully by many firms in recent years. If you need the assistance of an attorney to handle family-related, civil or estate planning needs, check with firms in your area to learn more about the assistance they offer and their unique billing practices.

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