09 August 2011

How to Hire a Family Law Lawyer

All right, so you need a family law lawyer. That's too bad. Your question now is this: how do you go about finding and hiring one?

Personal Referrals

If you can, get a referral to one or two specific lawyers. People who can give you referrals include: family, friends and coworkers who have used a family law lawyer in the past (these people are also great for telling you who to avoid); accountants, business valuators and appraisers who have had professional dealings with family law lawyers; and, doctors, psychologists, therapists and counsellors who have been hired by family law lawyers.

These people have all had personal contact with a lawyer and can tell who they liked and who they didn't like, and the professionals will usually have worked with enough lawyers that they may be able to refer you to someone in particular based on your circumstances.

Referral Services

There are several services you can use to find a lawyer, such as directories which lawyers pay to be included, like Canada Law Books' Canadian Law List, directories where lawyers are included based on the opinion of their peers, like Best Lawyers, and open directories like the Canadian Bar Association's excellent Lawyer Referral Service, which will refer you to someone based on your location, language and legal problem.

(I have links to a bunch of local and international lawyer listing and search services in the Links & Resources section of my website.)

The Yellow Pages and the Internet

If all else fails, there's the Yellow Pages, and if the Yellow Pages fails, there's the internet.

The problem with the internet is that you don't know anything about the lawyer you're thinking of hiring except the things they say about themselves, and it's awfully easy to hire a designer to put together a slick website with Flash animations and impressive photography. Doing a Google search for best family lawyer vancouver, for example, is a terrible way to find a lawyer, if only because the rules of the Law Society are supposed to stop us from describing ourselves in ridiculously superlative language like that. (Frankly, the lawyers who really are the best have the professionalism and modesty not to describe themselves in such terms.) You'd probably get a more complete listing of lawyers with a simpler search like family law vancouver or family law nanaimo.

The problem with the Yellow Pages is that the display ads can be very expensive and you're not getting a full picture of your options... unless the picture you're looking for is of a parent walking hand in hand with a child or of a wedding ring lying on a torn family photo. And, like the internet, all you really know about the lawyers is what they say in their ads.

In fairness I may have been somewhat hard on the internet. Lawyer's websites will give you a sense of the firm's personality and any preferred areas of practice, such as children's issues, international and jurisdictional issues, appeal work or complex asset division problems. This is helpful, but it's not a substitute for a personal meeting the lawyer you're thinking of hiring.

(I have links to a bunch of lawyers' websites in the Links & Resources section of my site.)

Meet a Few Lawyers

Now that you've got at least a couple of names, start making appointments. You are making an important and often expensive decision, so meet a few people. You don't need to go with the first person you meet; you're entitled to shop around, and you should shop around.

Most lawyers charge for these initial meetings. Do not assume your meeting will be free or at a discounted rate unless the lawyer advertises that fact or his or her office tells you so. Lawyers are professionals and we bill for our time. If it's free legal advice that you're looking for, and there's nothing wrong with that, you can get it through organizations like UBC's LSLAP program, the Salvation Army's Pro Bono Program or Access Pro Bono.

It's not necessary for you to prepare anything for these meetings, but it can be helpful for you have a list of the important dates (your birthday, your partner's birthday, the children's birthdays, the date you began to live together, the date you married and the date of separation), an idea of what your assets and liabilities are (something approximate will do, you don't need to be precise), and summary of your income and your partner's income.

If litigation is underway, it's helpful to see the documents that started the case (in the Provincial Court, an Application to Obtain an Order and a Reply, and in the Supreme Court, a Notice of Family Claim, a Response to Family Claim and a Counterclaim) as well as copies of whatever orders have been made to date. If you want to hire the lawyer because your partner has made a settlement offer or prepared a separation agreement, bring copies of that too.

If litigation is going to be underway, bring a photograph of your partner for the lawyer's process server, and if you're married, bring a copy of your marriage certificate (the ugly brown thing from the Vital Statistics Agency, not the flowery document you received from your celebrant). If support will be an issue, consider bringing in copies of your three most recent income tax returns (PDF).

Choosing the Right Lawyer

I'm not an authority on this, but it seems to me that what a client ought to be looking to get out of an initial meeting is:
  1. an explanation of the law applicable to your problem in language you're comfortable with;
  2. an explanation of the options available to you;
  3. the lawyer's opinion of the likely range of outcomes; and,
  4. an idea of what it'll cost you to retain the lawyer.
On top of that, I expect a client would want to walk out of the meeting with:
  1. confidence in the lawyer's knowledge of the law;
  2. a sense that you will be able to work with the lawyer;
  3. some assurance that the lawyer has the time to devote to your case; and,
  4. a clear understanding of the terms of the lawyer's services.
Like I said before, you're entitled to shop around. You're entitled to ask the hard questions and get some honest answers, and if you have any hesitation about who you're thinking of hiring, hire someone else.

A Few Tips for Hiring a Lawyer

Ask how long the lawyer has been practicing law, and how long the lawyer has been practicing family law in particular. Ask about the lawyer's hourly rate and about the things you will be charged for.

There's nothing fundamentally wrong with hiring a junior lawyer. In general, a junior lawyer's lower hourly rate will compensate for any extra time spent researching the law or court processes, and the lawyer will usually have the ear of one or two senior lawyers who can be plied for advice as needed, especially junior lawyers at firms with multiple lawyers.

Unless your case is incredibly complex, with tough tax problems, jurisdictional problems, corporate problems or tort claims, you don't have to hire the most senior lawyer you can find or a partner of the firm. In general, our hourly rates vary with our seniority at the bar, and that usually means that more senior lawyers come with a correspondingly significant hourly rate.

Hiring a lawyer with a reputation as a shark or a bulldog isn't always a good idea, unless you like to spend lots of money in court.

If other people in a firm will be working on your file, ask to meet them as well. In particular, make a point of introducing yourself to the lawyer's main legal assistant, and be friendly.

Be prepared for the lawyer not to be able to take your case. This isn't a slight against you, it's just that most family law lawyers are terribly busy.

If the lawyer you meet can't take your case, get the lawyer's referral to two or three other lawyers. I only ever refer people to lawyers I have a personally high opinion of, and I always make referrals based on who I think would be a good fit for the client and the client's legal problem.