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The topics in the Dial-A-Law series provide general information on a wide variety of legal issues in the Province of Alberta. This service is provided by Calgary Legal Guidance funded in part by the Alberta Law Foundation.
This topic will discuss how to choose a lawyer, legal fees and what to do if you are dissatisfied with your lawyer.
Legal advice should always be obtained before final decisions are made on matters with legal implications. Lawyers can explain the nature of the case and how your actions may affect the outcome. Further complicated difficulties may be prevented. For example, a legal advice, before signing a contract may prevent you from some binding obligations.
You may want to consult more than one lawyer before you decide which one you should hire. Look for a lawyer who practices in the area of law that relates to your specific legal problem. Choose a lawyer you feel comfortable with. Legal problems are personal and complex and your lawyer will play an important role in attempting to help you resolve them. If you do not know of a lawyer, ask friends to recommend lawyers with whom they have been satisfied. You may also call the Lawyer Referral Service or the Legal Aid Society for consulting a lawyer.
Before meeting a lawyer, prepare yourself by getting information, perhaps through Dial‑A‑Law, on your problem. Bring all the relevant material or documents related to your case such as receipts, summonses etc. before meeting your lawyer. If you are well prepared and know what you want your lawyer to do for you, the meeting will go better and you will save time and money. Tell your lawyer every fact concerning your case even those that you might think are unfavorable; it is essential that your lawyer be totally informed.
Ask your lawyer what kind of success you can expect, how long the case will take and what the cost will be. Meeting with a lawyer does not mean that you have hired the lawyer. When you find a lawyer you feel comfortable with, you may “retain” or hire the lawyer. Retaining means that you offer to employ the lawyer and they promise to work for you. This usually requires you to put a deposit, called a “retainer” towards the estimated bill.
Your lawyer is under an obligation to keep all your files, documents, facts and conversations related to your case confidential. This obligation continues even after you no longer deal with that particular lawyer. You may also expect your lawyer to be careful, skillful and responsible. A lawyer is not expected to be completely familiar with every type of law but they should know how to find the answer for you, or when to refer you to another lawyer who specializes in that particular area of law concerning your problem. The lawyer you hire may not be hired by another person involved in the same matter. This extends to your lawyer’s firm as well. For example, each party involved in a divorce or a land sale must hire separate lawyers from separate firms.
Once you hire a lawyer as your legal representative (one who represents or fight your case on your behalf), you are bound by their authorized actions. For example, if you are suing another person for damages you suffered in a car accident and you authorized your lawyer to accept a certain amount of money as a settlement, you will be bound by an agreement for that amount with the other party. It is, therefore, important that you communicate with your lawyer and understand what they are doing for you. If you do not understand what your lawyer is doing then ask for a clear explanation.
The lawyer’s fee depends upon the amount of time and effort that he has spent on your case, the difficulty of the case, the amount of money involved, the nature of the case, and sometimes, the results obtained. Remember that lawyers usually charge by the hour including time spent on the telephone with you. Do not waste your lawyer’s time or your money on pointless calls. For certain specialized transactions, such as buying or selling property, lawyers will generally quote a fee. The tariff in real estate transactions is based on a percentage of the value of the property being bought or sold. It is advisable to obtain an estimate or quote for fees and disbursements prior to retaining a lawyer. Disbursements include charges by government agencies, the cost of transcripts of proceedings, amounts paid to the Clerk of the Court, long distance telephone calls and photocopying charges.
In some cases your lawyer may act on a “contingency” basis where you are suing for monetary damages. Contingency means that you pay your lawyer a certain percentage of the money award if the lawsuit is successful. For example, if you are injured in a car accident and you agree to a contingency rate with your lawyer of 25%, your lawyer will take 25% of the award made to you. It is also possible to have several levels of contingency within the context of a law suit. For example, if the case is settled to the point of discoveries in a legal action, the lawyer will receive 25% of the settlement, or after the discoveries, they will receive 35% of the settlement. If the action is unsuccessful, your lawyer will receive nothing except for the disbursements that have been paid on your behalf. For a contingency agreement to be enforceable it must be in writing and your lawyer must file it with the Clerk of the Court.
Your lawyer must provide a written invoice for services rendered to you. The invoice should give a reasonably detailed description of the legal services they performed and a breakdown of the fees and disbursements. If you disagree on the amount, you may have the bill reviewed. This review is called “taxation”. In order to review or tax the lawyer’s bill, an appointment is made with the Clerk of the Court of Queen’s Bench. In Calgary and Edmonton, there are deputies of the Court who are especially appointed to handle these complaints. In smaller centers without a permanent Court, arrangements are made through the Office of the Clerk of the Court in your judicial district. You will receive notice of the day set by the taxing officer for a time when you and your lawyer attend at the Office of the Clerk of the Court. If either party fails to attend, the taxing officer may proceed with the taxation. Either of you may be represented by an agent. The taxing officer then reviews the lawyer’s bill and may approve it, or change it if they feel the fees were excessive for services. The taxing officer then certifies the amount considered to be fair and reasonable. Either you or your lawyer may appeal the taxing officer’s decision to a Judge of the Court of Queen’s Bench within 10 days.
If you have any concerns about your lawyer’s dealings with you, tell the lawyer first. Explain your concerns. If you cannot resolve your concerns with your lawyer, contact the Law Society of Alberta. There are standards for professional conduct and the Law Society will investigate all the complaints. If necessary, the Society will discipline the lawyer by imposing a fine, by temporarily suspending the lawyer from practicing law, or in extreme cases, by withdrawing his or her privilege to practice law altogether. The Law Society of Alberta also administers an “Assurance Fund”, which is a fund to which all lawyers must contribute annually. If you suffer monetary losses due to a lawyer’s dishonesty while they are acting as your lawyer, you may be reimbursed through the Assurance Fund. If, however, your lawyer provided you with the advice while not acting in the capacity of a lawyer, for example, on investing money, you would not be eligible for reimbursement from the Assurance Fund. All lawyers must be insured against negligent acts; this insurance is called “Errors and Omissions Insurance”. If it is proven that your lawyer was careless or incompetent, you may be compensated through this fund. If you feel that your lawyer has been careless in the handling of your files, you should consult another lawyer to discuss the possible courses of action open to you.