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How to choose a law firm

Legal services in Canada are changing to better serve clientele. People want to know how much their legal issue will cost before starting the process. Many want to self-represent. Savvy law firms are responding with a menu of services showing costs up front. And some menus even include coaching for those going to court on their own.

More than 50 per cent of people in family courts choose to represent themselves. This fact loudly indicates that firms need to change the way they are doing business. Those who self-represent may not reach the best possible conclusion to their disputes, but they would obviously rather take that chance than to pay for legal representation. There’s a reason for that. There are too many stories about stress-filled procedure, not knowing the status of progress — or not seeing progress — and high costs. 

In fact, the most common reason is they don’t know how much their divorce, for example, is going to cost.

Some people try to write their own marriage and separation agreements. This can defeat the purpose of the domestic agreements if they are later deemed unenforceable by a family judge. For example, if one spouse didn’t get independent legal advice or had to sign because of a time deadline (the wedding), it is likely the contract will be deemed invalid by a judge. People who write their own agreements would not likely know of these issues.

When a client gets their monthly bill from the law firm, they want to know what, if any, progress was made. If this is not clear on the invoice, the client only sees how much the lawyer is charging them. This leads to client dissatisfaction.

Managing technology

Most law firms do not spend enough time managing their technology. Modern-day law firms need to be a blend of a law practice and technology company.

Data protection is important as lawyers have access to identification, credit-card information, details about their clients’ assets and income. Canadian legislation now requires proper care to protect personal information. Some lawyers put documents in a box in the corner of a room. That is not information management. Many modern-day law firms have contracted companies such as Microsoft to offer the most advanced cloud system available. Daily security checks are done by Microsoft to ensure no data breach occurs.

Law firms need to back up all data frequently to make sure no data has been lost. Data should be kept for seven years after a file is closed. This is to make sure it’s available if any issues arise in future. 

Most scanners have a hard disk that stores copies of everything on it. There have been cases where lawyers have sold scanners with all their clients’ data on the hard disk. Clients need to make sure they hire a law firm that is competent in data protection. 

Law firms should also use company laptops that are not used for downloading movies or for personal use. There have been security breaches where a lawyer uses their own laptop for work and personal use. By doing so they accidently downloaded malware off the internet.

When lawyers leave a firm, they should sign an affidavit saying that they have not taken any technology or data with them.

Public Wi-Fi is not secure. A lawyer or law-office employee should never work on client files in a coffee shop.

Customer service goals

One of the main problems I see with modern clients is that they want a quick yes or no to their complicated legal questions. They may call a law firm or text a lawyer and expect an answer within 10 minutes or they contact another law firm.

Lawyers are hired to provide legal research and careful consideration of legal problems. It is impossible to have an answer to a complicated problem within 10 minutes. Often, clients are so impatient that they even want an answer from the intake team members who are not lawyers. The intake manager will encourage the client to book a consultation with a lawyer, but the client wants an answer before doing so.

To get around this problem, our firm charges $100 for a one-hour meeting with one of our family lawyers. This eliminates the people who are not serious about the value that lawyers bring; those who just want a quick answer to make themselves feel better.

Self-represented coaching

A two- to three-day trial can cost more than $50,000 in legal fees. Such high fees have encouraged some to risk things such as child custody or losing their assets to save money. In my opinion, this is very short-sighted. Not being willing to pay money now to save you a lot more in the future is risky.

Going to court for the first time and speaking in front of everyone can be stressful. With self-represented coaching from a lawyer, clients will still be nervous, but at least they will have a better chance at winning. The client would hire a lawyer under a “limited scope,” which means they are available to assist you but they do not become the lawyer of record.

In Ontario, Rule 15 of the Rules of Civil Procedure sets out the guideline for self-representation.

You cannot self-represent if:

  • You are a corporation
  • You are representing someone else (eg: you as an estate trustee)

Choose a law firm willing to offer their prices up front. Ask them about their technology and whether they deliver coaching. These are fair questions for the modern client seeking strong representation at a reasonable cost.