Choosing a Lawyer (Script 435)

From Clicklaw Wikibooks

This script explains why people need lawyers, how to choose one, and how to prepare for the first interview. You can also check the following scripts:

  • 436, called “If You Have a Problem with Your Lawyer”
  • 438, called “Lawyers’ Fees”

Also, see the BC Law Society’s website for information on how to choose a lawyer and what to do at the first meeting.

When do you need a lawyer?

If you need legal help or advice, you need a lawyer. People use lawyers for many reasons – business and personal. Lawyers deal with a wide range of cases including wills, real estate, leases, contracts, separation agreements, divorces, and car accidents. Lawyers also work on criminal cases like impaired driving and assault. Lawyers are trained to understand and interpret the law. They defend your rights and tell you how the law applies to your business or personal situation.

Why use a lawyer instead of a notary public?

A lawyer has much more training and expertise in the law and can give you service that is more complete in a wider range of areas. For example, if a will or real estate transaction turns out to be complicated, a notary may need to send you to a lawyer for legal advice. Notaries can give legal advice only in the areas of law that they are entitled to practice, which is fairly limited.

Most lawyers get a university degree before they go to law school. At law school, they study law full-time for three years. Then they take 10 weeks of intensive training and must pass a series of bar admission exams. All law students must also apprentice for 10 months with an established lawyer before they can work on their own.

Most BC notaries were licensed before 2008 and had to take a part-time correspondence course and pass government-regulated examinations to qualify. New notaries have to complete a master’s degree in Applied Legal Studies at SFU and a training program in addition to the government-regulated examinations.

Why use a lawyer for simple legal procedures?

Things that look simple may actually be complex. People sometimes think that because procedures and forms look simple, the legal service is also simple. But legal transactions are often complex. Lawyers analyze how the law applies to your case. They do this groundwork before advising you how the law applies to you and which procedures or forms you need. You face substantial risks and disadvantages if you use the legal system without fully understanding the law and its effects.

Wills and real estate: two important examples

Your will may be the most important legal document you ever make. It has to be right because if there’s a mistake, it may be too late to fix it. Buying, selling and mortgaging your home often involve the most important financial contracts you ever sign. Both real estate transactions and wills have to be treated with extreme caution and done very carefully.

We always hope things turn out for the best but it's smart to be prepared. Lawyers are trained to find and fix legal problems. They also know of many tax implications associated with your case and can advise you on them.

Laws change daily and so do their effects. Lawyers understand, apply, and explain those laws to you. Why not be prepared for all situations by using a lawyer from the start?

Are lawyers' fees competitive?

Yes. There are about 10,000 practising lawyers in BC. About three-quarters of them are in private practice (the rest work in government and business). Competition helps keep legal fees reasonable. Lawyers’ fees can be competitive with notaries’ fees for similar procedures. Lawyers give complete legal advice—something notaries can’t give.

How should you choose a lawyer?

Most people use a lawyer only rarely, if ever. So if they need a lawyer, they often don't know how to find one.

1. Start with a lawyer you've used before

If you have used a lawyer before, you can go back to that lawyer if you need legal help in the same type of law. Lawyers, especially in large cities, tend to work in certain areas of law. (But they don't specialize like doctors do—there are no exams a lawyer can write to become a specialist in divorce or any other area.)

On the other hand, if you need legal help in a different type of law, you will probably want a lawyer with experience in that type of law. For example, if you are getting divorced and the lawyer you used before did your will, and does only wills, that lawyer may not be the best one to handle your divorce. If you were happy with your will, you can ask the lawyer who did it for names of lawyers who specialize in divorce. Try to get two or three names, so you can shop around and compare.

2. Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations

If you’ve never used a lawyer, ask friends and colleagues to recommend a lawyer they used for similar needs. A personal recommendation is usually a good way to choose any professional. You could also ask your doctor, accountant, or financial advisor. Often, they know lawyers who specialize in certain areas. Or your employer may have a lawyer on staff. You can also ask your union lawyer for a recommendation. Always describe your problem in detail.

3. Call the Lawyer Referral Service

If you've never used a lawyer and you can't get a recommendation, try the Lawyer Referral Service. BC lawyers participate in this voluntary service. Even if you aren't sure if you have a legal problem, you can use this program, operated by the BC Branch of the Canadian Bar Association. Call 604.687.3221 in the lower mainland and 1.800.663.1919 elsewhere in BC. Briefly explain your problem. The service will give you the name of a lawyer who does that type of law.

Phone the lawyer and make an appointment. Tell the lawyer that Lawyer Referral Service sent you. The lawyer will give you up to a 30-minute appointment for $25 plus tax. At the appointment, the lawyer will tell you if you have a legal problem. Then, if you and the lawyer agree, you can hire that lawyer at their normal rate. You do not have to use that lawyer. You may decide you do not need a lawyer for your particular issue, or you may decide to shop around and find another lawyer.

Prepare for the first interview

Once you choose a lawyer—one you are comfortable with and whose advice you value—carefully prepare for your first interview with the lawyer. You can still change lawyers after the first interview—or at any time—if you’re not happy with the lawyer.

1. Collect and organize your information

You have to give the lawyer a clear picture of your problem and goal. Make notes of all the facts of your case, in an organized way—usually chronologically (by time). Gather and organize all the documents on your case. Bring the notes and documents to the interview. For example, if you had a car accident, write everything you remember about how the accident happened and your injuries. Draw a diagram of the accident scene. List all your expenses. Bring all your receipts and paperwork, like accident and insurance reports. This lets the lawyer advise you properly and quickly.

2. Ask lots of questions

Use the first interview to get as much information as you can. Even if you got the lawyer's name through Lawyer Referral Service, there is no guarantee that this lawyer is right for you. Ask questions, such as:

  • Does the lawyer have experience in your type of problem?
  • Does the case interest the lawyer?
  • How long will your case probably take?
  • Can the lawyer work on your case right away, or will you have to wait until other cases end? Will that make a difference to your case?
  • What steps will solve your problem and how much time will each step likely take?
  • How much will your case cost? See the next section for more on costs.

3. Ask about fees and disbursements (expenses)

Always ask about fees and expenses in the first interview. Ask the lawyer to estimate about how much it will cost to solve your problem—including fees and expenses (called disbursements). How will the lawyer bill you: monthly or at the end of the case? How does the lawyer charge—a flat rate, by the hour, or a percentage of what you win? Script 438, called “Lawyers' Fees”, has more details.

4. Ask if you have a strong case

Ask the lawyer for a realistic opinion of your case and your chance of winning. Should you settle the case instead of suing? Can you do anything to reduce the lawyer’s time on your case, and to reduce your costs?

5. Make sure the lawyer reports to you

Once you hire a lawyer, explain that you want to be informed of all developments in your case. The best way to ensure this is by having the lawyer automatically send you a copy of all correspondence on your case. Then you can avoid repeated phone calls to find out what's happening, because those phone calls cost you money.

Problems between lawyers and clients often result from poor communication. So if problems come up, talk or write to your lawyer (script 436 has more on problems with your lawyer). You will probably spend a lot of time and money on your legal problem, so you should choose a lawyer carefully.


[updated February 2016]

The above was last reviewed for accuracy by Steve Gjukich and edited by John Blois.




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