Barbara Whitmore, a Family law attorney, used to focus on her clients getting their fair share of a couple's assets when the marriage dissolved. However, with the slumping economy, her focus has shifted
to helping her clients decide which to file for first: bankruptcy, foreclosure or divorce.
Sometimes, she even encourages them to call the whole thing off. "Some people say, 'We're unhappy but we have to stay together until the economy changes,'" Whitmore said.
Our bad economy is changing the way family law practitioners are doing business. For one, custody and property settlement battles tend to be shorter. Another change is that many family law attorneys are going back to court on behalf of clients in hopes of lowering child support and alimony obligations.
According to family law attorney Kimber Martin, the changing economy may allow for a reduction in child support and alimony. "Outright job loss and hard times can make for an appealing case before a judge," Martin said. However, making matters even more complex is that recipients are most likely experiencing a hard time too. To settle the matter, judges need to be convinced that the present circumstances are not temporary. With today's failing economy, hard times may look more and more permanent.
Another attorney, Stephanie Brunner, has also seen a marked increase in people filing for reduction in child support due to lost income. Many of her clients were either self-employed or worked in the construction industry. Both have been especially hard-hit, Brunner said.
Many family law attorneys have also seen their own business practices change drastically as a result of the econom, including changes in the way they are paid for their services. "We now take payment plans of every variety," Brunner said. "Previously firms did not take the type of payment plans we're taking. We're working with people as long as they're willing to pay."
Such plans could include weekly and biweekly payments. Whitmore asks clients for a $2,500 retainer so she can be assured that she will receive something for the work she does on their behalf. In many cases, that could be all she receives, because lawyers have fewer options now than they once did for collecting back fees. "Attorneys were used to being able to secure our attorney fees by putting a lien on the property," she said. "Now you can't do that because homes are upside down." Martin has found that some clients get help from family members and dip into savings to pay attorney fees.
The economy has has shifted focus in the practice of family law -- people who once fought hard for custody rights now say they can no longer afford long, drawn-out court fights.