News in the Daily Telegraph that one of Britain’s highest-profile divorce lawyers has charged her clients for more than the amount of time she recorded on their cases ( http://tinyurl.com/3muqzbp ) may be a greater surprise to the general public than it will be to those of us working in the legal professions. The practice of “marking-up” is a long-established one. Some lawyers not only charge for the time they have remembered to record, but also include extra charges to cover time they forgot to record, for working anti-social hours and for any highly pressurised complex work. The question to ask is not simply why clients pay these sums, but what value is there in going to a “top divorce lawyer”.
As a member of the relatively small world of family law professionals who not only have the skills necessary to help people deal with their divorces in a low-key, dignified and consensual way but actually use them, I find it slightly ironic that our services are the ones which celebrities and the wealthy tend not to seek out. Our interdisciplinary approach provides for a greater likelihood that a better outcome will be achieved for the family members involved, as well as for decency, privacy and significantly lower legal costs.
Ask any family lawyer or judge which cases are the most challenging and the answer will typically be those where there is simply not enough money available to even cover the future needs of the couple and their children, let alone what else they might want. It is not those cases where there is more than enough money to go round, but the couple simply cannot agree who gets what. Yet the former are the cases often being run by the lowest paid, least experienced lawyers, who are frequently working in practices where there is little money available for resources and training – perhaps a typical legal aid practice.
These “low value” cases are also a staple of family mediators, many of whom work on a fixed-fee not on a mark-up basis. Yet mediation is without a shadow of a doubt requires a far greater skill-set than the practice of taking a client through the court process, which any family lawyer with a little experience can do. And the rewards? Well, if you are lawyer whose main tools include the media and the courts, the rewards are great: you may be ennobled, so allowing you to sit in the House of Lords; you will achieve great wealth; and probably widespread acclaim in the media as a real expert. The rewards for most family mediators are not in titles, money and acclaim. They are mostly a satisfaction in knowing that we help to achieve outcomes which are not only valued by the couple involved, but by their children and families too. That is what is known as real value.