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IntroducingHow to Find a Lawyer: A Guide for Everyone

Need a lawyer and don't know where to start? This guide is for you:

The search for a lawyer often begins during times of stress and urgency when it's easy to make a panicked decision about who to entrust with your legal care. Regardless of your legal concern, the first step to finding a great lawyer is to approach the process with a calm mind and a clear sense of priorities. Take a deep breath; Clearway is here to help you locate a great lawyer who specializes in your area of need.

Start by Understanding your Priorities

Whether you're buying a home, going through a divorce, incorporating a company, or dealing with a criminal charge, remember that urgency should never be your primary motivation. Your best chance at a successful legal outcome starts by taking the time necessary to hire the right lawyer for you and your specific concern (not necessarily the first lawyer that picks up the phone).

So, what describes the right lawyer? Well, that depends on you and the nature of your case. Not all lawyers are created equal, and having a legal license does not mean that a lawyer is necessarily qualified to handle your case. Just as you wouldn't hire a family doctor to perform heart surgery, you shouldn't hire a tax lawyer to handle an immigration case. While all lawyers are expected to have a comprehensive understanding of the law, most lawyers choose to limit their expertise to a few areas of legal specialty where they have deep knowledge and experience. This is why it's important to be specific about understanding your requirements. Write down the details of your situation, your desired outcome, and your highest priority concerns. Most lawyers will ask for this information on consultation, and the process will help you get clarity regarding the qualities you need to prioritize in your search. For example, a family lawyer may be the right choice for a standard divorce matter, however, if your case involves a complex child-custody issue, you may want to screen for lawyers with a proven track-record in this area of specialty. We've all heard the maxim "a jack of all trades is a master of none", and this applies equally to the law. While there are many competent legal generalists, in most cases it's wise to seek out a lawyer with expertise and experience in the specific legal domain that matches your needs.

Also, don't forget to prioritize yourself and your family in this process. Seek a connection with someone who you can trust with your legal care. Legal matters often arise during trying times, and you want to seek out a lawyer who can be your trusted partner to hold your hand through the process. Your lawyer should be kind, empathetic, and attentive -- you should never be made to feel silly or like a burden to the person you entrust with your case. Treat your lawyer with care and respect, and they should do the same. If something doesn't make sense, ask for an explanation in terms you understand. A good lawyer should make you feel confident, informed, and heard.

Searching for a Lawyer

Once you've gotten a handle on your priorities, you can then begin to further refine your search based on other criteria:

A great way to narrow your search is to tap into your network. Most people you know will have needed a lawyer at some point in their lives, and may have some good advice to impart. Starting a company? Talk to friends, relatives, or acquaintances that have walked the enterpreneurial path before. They'll likely have both good and bad experiences to share, and will likely be able to point you in the right direction. Most lawyers gain a portion of new business through referrals, so don't hesitate to ask people in your network to make an introduction. Often lawyers will prioritize referral business that comes via an established client relationship. Depending on the nature of your case, bankers, real estate agents, doctors, and accountants can all be great sources of referrals as each of these professionals likely deal with lawyers in some portion of their working life.

Leverage the search power of the internet. Clearway has been purpose-built to help Canadians connect with the best lawyers in their field. Put down the Yellowpages, and spend some quality time diligently researching qualified lawyers on the web. Understand each lawyer's profile and background before deciding to reach out. Who are they? Where are they located? What kinds of services do they offer? What are their areas of legal specialty? What do they charge? How long have they been practicing as a lawyer? Have they written any articles that speak to you? Have they won any awards? How have their clients reviewed them? Have they been the subject of any professional discipline? Do they accept digital forms of payment or payment plans? What are their values/mission/vision? Each of these is important to understand before deciding which lawyers to put on your shortlist. Clearway helps to make this portion of the research process easy by supplying a comprehensive profile for every lawyer in Canada.

Talk to your Law Society. Every Province & Territory has a regulatory body for the legal profession called a Law Society. These bodies regulate all lawyers, determine who is licensed to practice, and ensure that the lawyers they license adhere to rigorous standards. Law Societies are not lawyer advocates, they are committed to ensuring the protection of regular citizens by holding the legal profession accountable to high standards of professional conduct and competence. If you can't find a lawyer, or need assistance sourcing legal representation, reach out to your local Law Society for help. Also, if things go sideways and your lawyer fails to satisfy their professional obligations, your Law Society is in place to help you seek restitution.

Evaluating a Lawyer

Armed with a sense of your priorities and some research tools, you're ready to start narrowing your list of candidates. Here's a few other things to consider:

Give some thought to how you'd most like to connect with your lawyer. While proximity isn't always a priority, it's often nice to have a lawyer you can visit in-person who understands the unique aspects of how the law works in your area. An Ontario-based lawyer might not be the best choice for a Real Estate transaction in Alberta, however, the incorporation of a Federal company might just as easily be handled by a lawyer in a different region. In most cases (especially in large urban centers) you should be able to find a local lawyer who can represent you, regardless of the nature of your case. You'll also want to consider other convenience factors like digital connectivity. The advent of the internet and smartphones combined with the recent Covid pandemic has redefined how people expect to communicate. Does your lawyer offer virtual consulations? Do they communicate over text? Do they offer digital signatures and documents? Do they offer digital scheduling? Do they offer a client portal like Clio to keep you up-to-date on your case? All of these are important things to consider when selecting your best-fit legal representation. While digital proficiency is not a measure of legal proficiency, you'll want to select a lawyer who can connect with you on your terms.

Don't get duped by Hollywood. Shows like Suits, The Good Wife, Boston Legal, Ally McBeal and LA Law have given the public a distorted sense of how to evaluate lawyers. A fancy office, or $5000 outfit is seldom a good measure of how a lawyer will perform, and is more likely only a good predictor of cost. Plenty of excellent lawyers wear regular clothes, and work from home or in small legal firms with modest offices. Focus your search attention on measures of competence, experience, and outcomes, not appearances. Spend time on Clearway reading client reviews. These are a great way to leverage the experience of others in evaluating a legal prospect. While it's true that many of Canada's finest lawyers choose to work in large firms with extensive means, you should always ensure that you make your decision about your legal representation based on factors that correlate with your best outcome, not the view from their office or the price of their suit. In some cases large firms can be a great choice if you have diverse legal needs that may require the input of more than one lawyer or professional discipline.

Think about cost, but don't let this be your primary driver. The legal profession has a reputation as an expensive luxury that many cannot afford, but this is a dangerous falsehood. Although some legal matters can be expensive, most conventional legal work can be afforded without worry of financial ruin. Also consider that lawyers often pay for themselves in long-term cost savings. For example, a good Real Estate lawyer might uncover an issue with the land title that could save you from an expensive, problem-ridden Real Estate purchase. Similarly, a complex tax situation could result in overpayment of tax or the accrual of fines if not supported with competent legal tax advisory. If cost is a concern, don't hesitate to disclose your financial situation and your budget. Most lawyers can (and often will) find a way to work within your means by guaranteeing a flat-fee for work performed, or a structured payment schedule that matches your ability to pay. There's no shame in inquiring about cost up-front, and consulting with your prospective lawyer about how they can help you afford their services. There are also many legal-aid services which offer access to legal professionals at deep discounts or on a pro-bono (free) basis. These services are typically reserved for those with extremely limited means, but it never hurts to inquire about whether you would qualify for such assistance.

Don't be intimidated. The legal profession is unfamiliar to most Canadians so it's common to feel out of your depth and helpless when talking to a lawyer. Remember, lawyers are human too; don't fear them or put them on a pedestal. Most lawyers went to law school because they wanted to spend their careers helping people, not intimidating them. Do your best to screen for a lawyer that is prompt and clear in their communication; treats you with kindness and respect; shows empathy and understanding for your situation; and inspires you with confidence that they have the skills and experience to help stickhandle your legal situation.

Affording a Lawyer

Worried about affording a lawyer? You're not alone. In fact, the majority of legal matters that should receive legal representation do not because people do not know how to access a lawyer, or are concerned about cost. Here's a few things about affording legal work that may put you at ease:

Historically lawyers have been known to bill by the hour. This is still common practice, but is rapidly changing as clients are becoming more demanding about cost certainty. You wouldn't eat dinner at a restaurant that only disclosed the price when the bill came, and you shouldn't expect differently from your lawyer. Few people have the means to run up an unlimited legal tab, which is why it's always wise to consult with any prospective lawyer on price before you choose to engage them on your legal matter.

In the event your lawyer bills by the hour, don't fret. It's still possible to contain costs and ensure an affordable legal engagement. Remember, there's no shame in talking about price at the outset as this is an important decision factor. Speak to your lawyer about your financial situation, what your budget can permit, and get an estimate of costs. It's entirely reasonable to expect some cost certainty (within reason), and one way to accomplish this is to set threshold budgets. For example, let's say a typical Patent registration costs $5000.00 but in some unique cases may cost considerably more. To avoid the arrival of a surprising (and likely unwelcome) bill well outside of expectations, structure your legal engagement so that you're in control of your legal spend. Let your lawyer know you'd like a warning each time your bill reaches a certain threshold amount (say $2500.00), and only authorize the additional hourly work you can afford. This way you can avoid exceeding your legal budget and structure ongoing legal work at a pace you an afford. Alternatively if the legal work is time-sensitive and exceeds your present ability to pay, you can inquire about seeking a payment plan that allows legal work to continue while regular payments you can afford are made over a prescribed period (like a loan).

In response to calls for better predictability and affordability lawyers are increasingly offering their services for a flat fee. Although not all practice areas lend well to this kind of billing model, certain specialties are well suited to this kind of fee model due to the well prescribed work product, and high degree of predictability in terms of time investment. Flat fee work is typical in real estate, traffic court, wills & estates, intellectual property, immigration, and certain business matters. Whether your case fits neatly into one of these categories or not, it never hurts to inquire about what options exist to contain costs. Depending on the nature and complexity of your case, some lawyers may opt to structure a set fee for all work, or offer a flat fee for a specific subset of work. In either case, it's wise to set strict billing parameters so that you can hold your lawyer accountable, and are never surprised by a bill you weren't expecting.

Another billing scenario you may encounter involve either Retainers or Pre-Payments. Sometimes these two terms are used in a confusingly interchangable way, but their technical definition is quite different. A retainer is a regular fee designed to guarantee access to a lawyer, and may, in some cases, cover a portion of their time. Pre-payments are advance payments for work to be performed in the future, and are typically collected when the cost of work is expected to be substantial, or there is a reasonable risk of non-payment on the part of the client. If your lawyer asks for a pre-payment or retainer, don't be offended. It's standard practice in some firms, and helps them ensure income predictability. That said, make sure you understand the purpose and structure of the fee. Often lawyers will use the term "retainer" to describe a pre-payment, so it's important to know whether this fee will apply to future work performed, or whether it's the more "price of admission" style retainer. In both cases, it's worth discussing whether such a fee can be waived, or reduced to something nominal.

When it comes time to pay, most lawyers will send an invoice detailing the hours worked and the summary of costs. Expect to pay not only for legal time, but also for things like filing fees, legal consultants, paralegal professionals, junior lawyers, and other variable costs such as research and document production. Most legal bills are still paid by cheque, but firms are increasingly offering modern, digital payment modalities like credit card, ACH, debit, and wire transfer. If, like most Canadians, you don't own a checkbook or haven't written a cheque in years, be sure to inquire about other payment offerings. For some reason the legal profession seems rooted in the antiquated beleif that the only "civilized" way to pay a bill is by cheque. Do your part to nudge the industry forward by asking your lawyer to support credit cards for your next bill payment.

What to Expect from a Lawyer

The legal profession in Canada is highly regulated in order to ensure the public is protected by some of the most well-trained, competent, and ethical professionals in the world. The following are some basic professional standards enshrined by your local Law Society that you can expect your lawyer to uphold:

Above all else, lawyers in Canada are expected to act with integrity. This means being trustworthy and honorable in all of their professional dealings. When you select a lawyer for your needs, expect them to be honest, to protect your confidentiality, to deal with your case responsibly, and to uphold "the standards and reputation" of the legal industry in Canada.

Lawyers must also practice with a high degree of competence and quality. This means that if a lawyer accepts your case, they believe themselves to have the necessary skills and experience to adequately represent your interests. This does not mean that all outcomes are assured, but should provide some peace of mind that you've placed your care in qualified hands. It also means you can expect a high standard of care which includes prompt and frequent communication, professional conduct, and adherence to deadlines. In essence, when you select a lawyer in Canada, you should be able to trust that they'll treat you and your case with the utmost care and professionalism -- keeping things on track and comprehensively communicated.

Where to Go from Here

If you've made it this far, you should now be well equipped to head out and seek a world-class lawyer to represent your case. But, if you're still feeling uncertain, fear not. Clearway is here to help. Check out our other legal education resources, or reach out to the Clearway team to help get your case into the right hands.


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