The combination of the front loaded nature of contested family court cases (i.e., preparing for motions for temporary relief) and the general reluctance of attorneys to sue clients for fees means that experienced family law attorneys generally require significant up-front retainers before beginning representation. However many (most?) folks who needs family court attorneys have limited or no savings. Thus, they ask attorneys to begin working for little or no money down and upon the promise of payment.
Experience shows such clients to be bad credit risks. They may start with every intention of paying but if they don’t get a result they like at the initial hearing payment generally stops. Further the temporary hearing may result in an order requiring them to pay substantial fees to opposing counsel or substantial income to a co-parent or estranged spouse. A supported spouse or custodial parent may emerge from the temporary hearing with less funds than anticipated, and with lesser ability to pay his or her own attorney. In all circumstances such folks will have other bills to pay and these bills frequently become a higher priority than paying their attorney for previous work.
For all these reasons I never start work on the promise of payment. Most potential clients have family and friends. I’ve typically just met the potential client; family and friends have known him or her for years. If a client needs funds to begin or defend a family court case, that client should look to them, not me, for those funds. And if the client has no friends or family willing to assist, that is often a warning sign that the client has significant mental health or substance abuse issues that alienate him or her from others.
Basically to work on the promise of payment is to lend the client your time. For attorneys who bill by the hour, time is money. If no one close to the client considers him or her a good credit risk, an attorney is a fool for assuming otherwise.