Choosing and Working with Lawyers.
Choosing and Working with Lawyers - Topics on this page:
When choosing a lawyer you will want one who specializes in the area of law you are concerned with. Friends, neighbours, work acquaintances, your accountant or other professionals you use may be able to refer you to a lawyer. If you have a lawyer you have used in the past but he/she doesn't specialize in the area of law you are now concerned with that lawyer may be able to refer you to a lawyer. Websites are also great places to find a lawyer.
You'll need to do some initial screening of your list of lawyers to whittle it down to three or four prospective candidates:
- Look at biographical information, including whatever you can find on websites for the lawyers and their law firms. Do they appear to have expertise in the area you need? Do they have any information on their Web sites that is helpful to you?
- Use search engines to surf the Internet. Can you find any articles, FAQ'sor other informational pieces the lawyer has done that give you a level of comfort? Cross check your references by doing searches using key words such as Canadian personal injury lawyers or Canadian trial lawyers.
- Check to see if the lawyer belongs to any specialty associations,
- Ask other people if they've heard of the lawyers and what they think about them.
- Check out the yellow pages of your telephone directory. Does the lawyer advertise? If so, do you find it compelling? Helpful? Tasteful?
- Before you hire a lawyer, ask for references. You want to talk to people who could comment on the lawyer'sskills and trustworthiness. Ask if it is okay to talk to some of the lawyer'srepresentative clients.
- Ask for a copy of a firm brochure and promotional materials that the firm may have. Crosscheck these materials against your other sources and references.
When you deal with a lawyer, as with all professionals, it is to your advantage to be well prepared and knowledgeable. Also make sure you give the lawyer FULL AND COMPLETE information concerning your situation. Your lawyer can give you the best help and advice only if he/she has all the facts.
The following tips will make the meeting efficient and productive:
- Summarize your situation in chronological, point form. This not only provides information for your lawyer but aids you in focusing on relevant issues.
- Bring along any relevant documents.
- Tell your whole story, even
if it is damaging or embarrassing. Your lawyer needs to consider all
options. Anything you tell your lawyer for the purpose of obtaining
legal advice is confidential and your lawyer is not allowed to disclose
what you say without your consent.
- Sometimes, a lawyer will try to facilitate the information gathering process by sending you a questionnaire to fill out in advance.
- Prepare a list of questions
to take with you to your first meeting. You have to feel comfortable
with your lawyer. Remember that your lawyer is working for you. You
want someone who is skilled, but you also have to get along with your
Questions and Issues you might discuss with your lawyer may include:
- Talk to your lawyer about his or her legal opinion, especially if you are thinking about going to court. Find out about your options and alternatives. Make sure you and your lawyer agree on your plans and priorities and on the outcome you are looking for.
- Does the lawyer need any more information in order to evaluation your situation?
- How many similar cases has he or she handled?
- What percent of his or her practice is in the area of expertise that you need?
- What problems does the lawyer foresee with your file?
- How would the lawyer go about handling your situation? What is the process, including the different stages, arrangement, filing of motions, motions hearing, examinations for discovery, hiring expert witnesses, trial?
- How long will it take to bring the matter to a conclusion?
- If the case is a criminal matter does the lawyer ever plea bargain? All the time? Never? Either of those answers could be a problem. Some cases likely should be plea bargained. Other cases likely should go to trial.
- If the case is a personal injury matter, for example, does the lawyer like to settle his cases or go to trial?
- How would the lawyer charge for his or her services?
- Would the lawyer handle the case personally or would it be passed on to some other lawyer in the firm?
- If other lawyers or
staff may do some of the work, could you meet them?
When you're shopping for legal services, always ask potential lawyers to fully explain their fees and billing practices. Don't hesitate to ask detailed questions and don't be embarrassed. A lawyer's willingness to discuss fees is an important indicator of how he or she treats clients.
Payment arrangements may include:
- Hourly rates are the most common arrangement. The attorney gets paid an agreed-upon hourly rate for the hours he or she works on a client's file or matter until it's resolved. Cheaper is not necessarily better when it comes to your legal protection. A more expensive lawyer with a lot of experience may be able to handle a complex problem more quickly.
- Flat Fees - Where a legal matter is simple and well defined, lawyers typically charge a flat fee. Examples of flat fee matters include wills and uncontested divorces. If a lawyer suggests or has advertised a flat fee, be sure you understand exactly what that fee will and will not cover. The flat fee might not include expenses such as filing fees.
- A retainer fee is typically an advance payment on the hourly rate for a specific file. The lawyer puts the retainer in a trust account and deducts from that account the cost of services as they accrue. During the course of legal representation, clients should review periodic billing statements reflecting amounts deducted from the retainer. Most retainers are non-refundable unless labeled unreasonable by a court. If you decide to drop a case that your lawyer has worked on before the retainer has been exhausted, you may forfeit the remainder.
- Contingency fee: (Note: These are the rules for British Columbia. For
rules in other jurisdiction refer to the Law
Society for your jurisdiction) In a contingency fee agreement,
the lawyer acts for the client in return for a percentage of the money
the client wins in a lawsuit. If no money is recovered, the lawyer collects
no fee. Contingency fee agreements are common in personal injury claims,
product liability cases and class actions.
Contingency fee agreements must be in writing. Contingency fees are not permitted in family law cases involving child custody or access. They are permitted in other types of family law cases, but must be approved by the court.
In a claim for personal injury or wrongful death arising out of a motor vehicle accident, the maximum contingency fee allowed is one-third of the amount recovered. In all other cases involving personal injury or wrongful death, the maximum allowed is 40% of the amount recovered. There are no maximum limits for contingency fees in cases not involving personal injury or wrongful death. Lawyers often vary their contingency fee rates depending on the amount of the claim, the degree of risk involved and the stage at which the case is resolved.
In most contingency fee agreements, the client is required to pay all disbursements, such as medical reports, court filing fees and photocopying charges, regardless of the outcome of the case.
How much can you expect to pay?
Rates for legal fees vary based on location, experience of the lawyer, and the nature of the matter. Rates may vary anywhere from $50 an hour to a $1,000 an hour or more.
In rural areas and small towns, lawyers tend to charge less, and fees in the range of $100 to $200 an hour for an experienced attorney are probably the norm. In major metropolitan areas, the norm is probably closer to $200 to $400 an hour. Lawyers with expertise in specialized areas may charge much more.
What about Disbursements (expenses and court costs)?
Lawyers refer to all billing items other than fees as "disbursements". Discuss with your lawyer anticipated miscellaneous costs so that you can estimate those costs up front and avoid any unpleasant surprises.
A law office typically has
many employees in addition to the lawyers. Knowing who these people are
and what they do may help you to be a more informed client and make your
lawyer'srepresentation more efficient. The law office hierarchy
can include any of the following people:
Partners: People commonly refer to the owners of a law firm as being the partners. Partners are usually the most experienced lawyers in a firm and, consequently, they charge the highest fees.
Associates: Lawyers whore employed by a firm but who arent owners are usually called associates. Generally, associates can be very good lawyers, but they typically have less experience than the partners of the firm. Although it varies from firm to firm, associates may have to work for perhaps three to 10 years before they are considered for partnership. Given their experience, associates tend to bill at lower rates than partners.
Articling students: Articling students are law school graduates who are training to be lawyers. They work under the supervision of a lawyer and are permitted to perform many of the tasks of a lawyer and are permitted to appear in court on certain matters.
Paralegals: A paralegal is someone who has legal training but who is not a lawyer. Paralegals can serve a very important role in a law firm by providing critical support to lawyers when they are working on files. In many instances, paralegals can have a practical working knowledge of the law that can make them more valuable to a law firm than a new associate. They are able to work under the supervision of a lawyer on the detail work that has to be done on every file but that cannot justify the high billing rates of a lawyer.
Legal Assistants: This is really a catchall term that is sometimes used by law firms to describe anyone in a law office who assists in working on legal matters. It may include paralegals, legal secretaries, and other support staff.
Legal Secretaries: Every lawyer is burdened with an endless barrage of administrative details and procedural requirements that are a part of practicing law. These duties and requirements can be a huge distraction for a lawyer who doesnt have a competent legal secretary to organize and assist with the day-to-day affairs of his or her practice.
Receptionists: A firm of any size will have a legal receptionist. A receptionist is a very important person in the office, as he or she is the firm'sinitial contact with the outside world.
Administrative Personnel: Larger law firms will have their own administrative personnel to run the internal operations of the firm. While administrative staff generally dont charge for their services, they do constitute an overhead cost that is ultimately reflected in billing rates. Administrative staff may include accountants, bookkeepers, librarians, billing and accounts receivable personnel and human resources personnel.
What are your lawyer's professional
All lawyers are subject to strict standards of professional responsibility. These standards are set forth in codes of conduct and Privileges, ethics, rules of professional conduct that are established by provincial and territorial law societies. Here are some basic ethical and professional rules your lawyer must follow:
- Your lawyer must represent you ethically, zealously and within the bounds of the law.
- Your lawyer must competently analyze legal issues and exercise knowledge of the law applicable to your case.
- He or she must communicate with you in a timely and effective manner.
- Your lawyer owes you, as the client, a duty of loyalty. Your lawyer can't simultaneously represent you and another client with legal interests that conflict with yours. An example of an obvious conflict would be representation of both the landlord and the tenant in an eviction action.
- For so long as he or she continues to represent you, your lawyer is required to follow your directions in handling your case unless those directions are illegal.
- Your lawyer must keep your personal property separate from his or her own property, and must keep your money in a trust account. Any time you demand it, your lawyer must return your money or property.
- Except in rare circumstances, your lawyer is required to keep client confidences confidential.
- Your attorney may have other responsibilities to you, depending on your case and the ethical rules that apply in your jurisdiction.
If a lawyer fails to abide by these rules, he or she can be disciplined by any law society of which he or she is a member. It's possible the lawyer may even be disbarred for serious violations. Criminal prosecution is also a possibility. And a failure to comply with the rules may be the basis for a malpractice action.
What responsibilities do
you owe your lawyer?
Look at the retainer agreement that you may have signed when you retained your lawyer. Typically, these agreements will set out certain duties and responsibilities of the client. By signing the agreement, you are contractually bound to abide by them. Such duties and responsibilities may include:
- Being truthful with your lawyer.
- Being cooperative with and responsive to your lawyer.
- Being available to your lawyer and attending legal proceedings, as requested.
- Paying your legal bills in a timely manner.
- Prepare and be well organized for each meeting with your lawyer. Make sure you have all documents in order and that you have reviewed any documents your lawyer has sent you.
- Keep your communications with your lawyer concise and organized. Dont spend time discussing issues unrelated to your legal matter.
- Tell your whole story, even if it is damaging or embarrassing. Your lawyer needs to consider all options. Anything you tell your lawyer is confidential and your lawyer is not allowed to disclose it without your consent.
- Try to make the right decisions the first time. Frequently changing your mind will cost you money.
- Get to know your lawyer's assistants. If a secretary, legal assistant, articling student or junior lawyer can help you, contact that person instead of the most senior lawyer.
- Find out if your expectations are reasonable. Talk to your lawyer about his or her legal opinion, especially if you are thinking about going to court.
- Find out about your options and alternatives.
- Make sure you and your lawyer agree on your plans and priorities and that they are likely to lead to the outcome you want.
- If you dont understand some of the items on your bill or if you disagree with the amount, the first step is to talk it over with your lawyer. If your lawyer practices with a firm, there may be another member of the firm with whom you can discuss the bill. Go over the details and ask the lawyer to explain why a particular charge was made.
- If you and your lawyer cant resolve your differences, you have the right to have your lawyer's fees taxed (reviewed) by a Registrar of your province's Supreme Court. Normally, a review of a bill must take place within three months after it was paid or, if unpaid, within one year after it was sent to you. Contingency fee agreements can also be reviewed within three months after the agreement was made or terminated.
- Some Law Societies offer an informal fee mediation service if both you and your lawyer agree this is appropriate. Under this program, an independent mediator will assist the lawyer and client to reach a mutually agreeable resolution. If you do not reach an agreement, you can apply for a fee review, provided the time limit for applying for a review has not expired. In BC the cost of the fee mediation is $25 for each party.
A good first step is to talk to the lawyer or the lawyer'sfirm. Misunderstandings can arise because of a lack of communication. Often you can resolve these misunderstandings simply by discussing your concerns. If not, you can write or call the Law Society'sProfessional Conduct Department.
The Law Society has authority to review the conduct and competence of all lawyers, including lawyers in private practice, legal aid lawyers, government lawyers and Crown prosecutors. The Law Society can also review the conduct of a lawyer outside the practice of law if the conduct reflects on the legal profession. For more information on what the BC Law Society can do please refer to: Concerned about a Lawyer's Conduct
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