How long will an attorney work on your case if you can’t afford to pay them any more? This would be for a divorce, and they start to realize that they’re not going to get money from the other spouse. 

Good question. 

It depends mostly upon whether your attorney has a big heart and/or no head for business.

Generally, an attorney who takes your case without being paid as he/she goes but defers payment in the hope that he/she will be paid out of what you collect from your spouse is probably not a very intelligent or competent attorney. Some attorneys (usually new ones or desperate ones—and desperate ones are often new ones) will work a case, even if a client stops paying for his/her work, long after the client stops paying. These kinds of attorneys do this in the desperate hope that the client will eventually pay or because they believe that by getting stiffed, they are heroes/martyrs. In truth, however, these kinds of attorneys are simple fools because clients who have stopped paying (not fallen behind but got caught up—those kinds of clients are fairly common, and we’ve all been a little short sometimes, so it’s good when a creditor will cut us a little slack, as long as we don’t abuse the creditor’s good will) almost never, ever resume paying or paying their past due balances. 

To be sure, sometimes a client honestly runs out of money, and when that occurs, the attorney must understand that he/she cannot stay in business working for people who don’t pay for his/her services. There is a class of clients who are simply grifters; they seek out the easy marks and when they find them, they exploit them. These are people who deliberately plan on paying an attorney some money up front to get a case going (and to get the attorney mentally and emotionally invested in the case), who then stop paying but keep the attorney slaving away by telling the attorney things along the lines of, “Oh, I’ve had some hard times, but I will pay you just as soon as I can, so keep working and I’ll pay you eventually, I promise,” or “Once you win me that chunk of money, I’ll pay you out of that,” or, “Please help me! I need this so badly! Think of the children!!!,” stuff like that. Such clients are poison. 

Some lawyers (I was such a lawyer once) believe that non-paying clients are better than no clients, so they keep working for non-paying clients in the pathetic (but all too human) belief/hope that the client will be so happy with the great work the attorney does that the client cannot help but finally pay the bill out of gratitude and decency. Such lawyers are chumps. Other attorneys get a sense of nobility from working without pay “to help a struggling client” and to “make my little corner of the world a better place”.

Now don’t get me wrong: attorneys will, at times, volunteer to help those who are poor, but there’s a difference between choosing to work without pay and being duped into working without pay. There’s nothing noble about being a sucker. 

Utah Family Law, LC | | 801-466-9277

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