Finding a Lawyer

When do you need a lawyer?

At some point in your life you will need a lawyer. Since the law touches many aspects of daily life, it is rare for an individual never to need the help of a lawyer. The law regulates such things as the buying and selling of your home, your workplace, business contracts and taxes. It also protects rights. Because the law is so complex, you will probably have to consult a lawyer, who can help you with your legal problems by explaining the law to you and giving you legal advice.

You would likely want to consult a lawyer if you:

  • Are purchasing a home or a business
  • Want to draft a will
  • Want to incorporate
  • Want a partnership contract
  • Are hiring or firing employees
  • Are buying or selling a warehouse or office space
  • Want to buy or sell a franchise
  • Are signing or distributing contracts and permits
  • Are considering ways to structure a company
  • Are considering interprovincial trade
  • Are being sued by someone, or
  • Are charged with a criminal offence

Calling a Lawyer

Sometimes the most efficient way to find out whether you need a lawyer is simply by phoning one. There are several advantages to this approach. The main one is that a lawyer can quickly cut to the heart of the problem. Lawyers are trained to do that, and to distinguish between legal and non-legal problems. Another advantage is that you usually will not be charged for this phone call. Most lawyers are happy to help steer people in the right direction and can calm your fears about the law or the legal process. Another advantage is that a lawyer will not only keep your problem confidential, but has the ability to see a problem from a less emotionally charged perspective. This is particularly important if you have concerns about such things as financial problems or wrongful dismissal issues.

The final advantage is that lawyers know about other resources and lawyers with specialized training, who might best be able to deal with your problem. Clients who speak to lawyers early on can prevent problems from occurring or from worsening.

Should you solve the problem on your own?

If you feel you can solve your legal problem without a lawyer there are still some questions you should ask yourself. Even if you can represent yourself, should you, and do you want to? Some of the questions you may want to ask are discussed as follows:

What are consequences if you are unsuccessful?

Even if you are able to solve it yourself, you may still decide to hire a lawyer to determine what the consequences might be or the potential impact of the problem on your life and business. For example, if you are charged with fraud, you are permitted to defend yourself at trial. However, the consequence of a possible conviction (e.g., a prison term) is just too serious to deal with without the help of a lawyer. The same can be said about significant financial consequences such as the purchase of a business.

How complex is the law in your situation?

Sometimes the law is fairly straightforward and understandable, but more often it is complex, and it is constantly changing. For example, the law pertaining to the purchase of a computer is fairly clear, whereas the tax implications of a transfer of property are not. If you read the law, but do not really understand it, it is a good idea to contact a lawyer.

Do you have the time and energy?

Even if you can solve your problem, you may not have the time or energy. There is no sense putting your business on hold to devote the proper attention to a legal issue when others can deal with it more efficiently. If you do not have the time, the resources, the ability or the energy, it is best to consult a lawyer. Early discussions with a lawyer can often prevent many problems or at least prevent them from escalating. It is never too early to call a lawyer.

What about other professionals?

Other professionals who are not lawyers provide legal-related advice as part of their professional services. It is important to recognize, however, that the advice you receive is not legal advice. Only a lawyer can provide that. These professionals include accountants, real estate agents, bank officers and insurance agents, who, because they are experts in a specific area, will be able to answer your questions, or find someone who can.

In Canada, only lawyers are allowed to give legal advice (with a few minor exceptions). The government permits lawyers to provide legal services in exchange for a promise to protect the public interest in its delivery. Any non-lawyers who provide legal advice can be investigated and stopped by a provincial law society. Practising law without a license or insurance is called Unauthorized Practice of Law and is monitored vigorously by the Law Society of Alberta and self-governing regulators in other provinces.

Some legal matters can be performed unsupervised by paralegals, legal assistants and other legal agents. Only members of the Law Society can practise as lawyers.

In most provinces, legal assistants work under the supervision of lawyers inside law firms. They often prepare drafts of documents, interview clients and conduct searches. In most provinces, legal assistants are not allowed to provide legal services without a supervising lawyer. This arrangement ensures that lawyers are ultimately responsible and liable for any legal work done.

Education, Experience and Specialization Taken into Account

There are numerous factors involved in the consideration of a lawyer. When hiring a lawyer, it helps to know what skills and knowledge the lawyer has, as well as what he or she can and cannot do. Education, experience and areas of specialization should all be taken into account.

In Canada, all lawyers have very similar education and must abide by similar rules of conduct, which are regulated by law societies. In every province, except Quebec, lawyers must have completed the following before being permitted to practise law:

  • A three-year university law degree or equivalent (called an LL.B)
  • A provincial professional legal training course and bar admission exams
  • Apprenticeship or articling in a law firm for up to 12 months.

Before obtaining a law degree, lawyers must complete at least two years of an undergraduate degree. Some complete the undergraduate degree such as Bachelors of Arts or Commerce before attending law school. The majority of Canadian lawyers will, therefore, have attended university for about seven years with professional training requiring another year of two. Lawyers also continue to educate themselves after being called to the bar and are required to stay current on changes to the law and practice skills.

Statistics indicate that most lawyers practise in a few areas of law. This makes sense because it is very difficult to keep up to date in several different areas of law. For example, many lawyers have what is referred to as a litigation-based practice, restricting themselves to such things as personal injury, civil litigation and family law matters. Others may operate a solicitor-based practice restricting themselves to such things as buying and selling companies and real estate transactions. Although all Canadian lawyers are entitled to act as both barristers (litigators) and solicitors (office-based lawyers), in practise, most lawyers practise in one area or the other.

What legal services can a lawyer provide?

Lawyers are able to do many things and engage in a wide range of activities in order to meet their particular client’s needs, but they also have ethical obligations and specific obligations to clients. A lawyer’s principal responsibility is to see that each client obtains the benefit of his or her legal rights and is aware of his or her legal obligations. In approaching this duty, lawyers have three fundamental obligations. Lawyers must:

  • Serve clients competently
  • Be completely loyal to clients
  • Keep client communications confidential

In addition to the three fundamental obligations described above, lawyers are also required to provide a certain quality of service. The Law Society of Alberta’s Code of Conduct includes descriptions of the services lawyers should provide.

The services lawyers can provide include:

  • Answering legal questions
  • Helping clients find an answer
  • Appearing in court on a client’s behalf
  • Mediating disputes
  • Counseling clients
  • Planning estates and administering wills
  • Drafting contracts
  • Structuring private deals
  • Lobbying government to change laws
  • Drafting legislation
  • Writing letters and opinions
  • Taking steps to avoid litigation
  • Negotiating settlements
  • Providing advice about clients’ legal problems and possible outcomes

How do you find a Lawyer?

There is a real danger in shopping for the least expensive lawyer, because there are many other factors besides cost to take into consideration. Your task is to find a lawyer best suited to you and your particular problem. After determining what kind of legal problem you need resolved and deciding what you need from a lawyer, you may compile a list of potential lawyers. Using resources such as the Law Society of Alberta’s Lawyer Referral service (and others), you may wish to compile a list of lawyers who practise in that area. Lawyer Directories are available online, including the Law Society of Alberta, to allow you to check a lawyer’s practising status and obtain their contact information.

The next step is to investigate potential lawyers and compare against the criteria you have established. The more questions you ask, the more likely you are to find a lawyer who not only suits your legal needs, but whom you feel comfortable working with in person. See also the Twelve Questions to Ask Before Hiring a Lawyer.

Next steps:

Source: Fitzgerald, Maureen F.; So You Think You Need a Lawyer, McGraw-Hill Ryerson, 1998