The first question: “How long will this divorce take? A ballpark estimate is fine, I know you can’t give me an exact answer”.
The second question: “How much will this cost? A ballpark estimate is fine, I know you can’t give me an exact answer.”
To both of these questions, the honest answer almost always is, “I don’t know” and the answer should not be any different whether you have the most seasoned, efficient, fast-talking, get-down-to-brass-tacks lawyer in all of Illinois. The answer also should not change much if you are the most reasonable, realistic, fair-minded, ready-for-closure client in all of Illinois. Regardless, this does not mean that these are not good questions that should go unasked, especially since potential clients deserve to understand why estimating how long it will take and how much it will cost is hard to do in a divorce case (or even a post-divorce case on a limited issue). When possible, potential clients also deserve to know what a potential range is for a case like theirs (even if that range is broad, and often it is).
The reason it is difficult to estimate the cost of a family law case is because much of what happens is driven by factors outside of the control of the lawyer and her client. For example, obstinate spouses and difficult or unresponsive opposing counsel can drive up fees significantly. Also, no matter how proactive your lawyer is filing motions and meeting deadlines, the unpredictable pace of the court system can drive up legal fees as well. Sometimes stable situations fall apart if a case drags on long enough.
Further complicating predictability, cases which might at first blush seem straightforward can become more complex based on events unforeseen at the time of the divorce filing. For example, a medical issue may arise with a child, or one party may get a job out of state and ask to move. Even time and costs for mediated or collaborative cases are not necessarily any easier to predict than those for a litigated case. In more complex cases, mediation and collaboration require much the same preparation as litigated cases and can take just as long depending on how motivated the parties and lawyers are to settle. Another potentially costly scenario occurs when mediation or collaboration fails and the parties are then forced to move forward with litigation.
There are limited circumstances in which a family law attorney may be able to give a more precise range for time and cost. For example, the cost to draft a prenuptial agreement is generally subject to a narrower range due to the limited scope of the project. Even here, however, if the parties don’t have a meeting of the minds on their goals for the Agreement, costs can escalate quickly.
When a potential client asks about the estimated length or cost of a divorce case, he or she should reasonably expect their lawyer to provide a range of time and cost based on similar cases that the lawyer has had in the past. That’s about the best the attorney can really do since to provide an exact figure (even an estimated one) for time or cost is setting up a potential client for disappointment and distrust, and setting a lawyer up for failure.