What you should know
If you have a legal problem, a lawyer can help you figure out what to do. They can tell you how the law applies to your situation and what your options are. They can tell you what they think will happen based on other cases they have worked on, and help you get the best result possible.
If you have been seriously injured or mistreated, a lawyer can help you seek compensation. If you are facing criminal charges or a lawsuit, a lawyer can help you understand your rights, and the strengths and weaknesses of your case. A lawyer knows the rules and procedures for arguing the case in court. A lawyer can make a big difference in whether or not your side of the story is successfully presented to a judge or jury.
A lawyer can help you prepare a will, plan for your future care, or buy a new home. They can advise you on starting a small business or negotiate an employment contract. They can ease the pain of a family breakup, helping you negotiate a separation agreement, resolve any issues with children, or get a divorce order.
Lawyers are able to assist clients with all legal matters. This includes real estate, wills and estates, family law, criminal law, employment law, and advising businesses. Some lawyers choose to focus on certain areas of law — for example, courtroom work (also called litigation) or transactional work (also called solicitor’s practice).
Lawyers have extensive training in the law. They are licensed by a regulator (the Law Society of BC) that sets standards for practice and requires ongoing professional development. Lawyers are insured against malpractice, which means that if they do something wrong that hurts you, they have an insurance policy that can compensate you.
In British Columbia, notaries are able to assist clients with certain types of transactional matters. For example, a notary (also called a “notary public”) can prepare the paperwork to buy or sell a home or business. They can prepare most types of wills, as well as personal planning documents such as a power of attorney or a representation agreement.
They also notarize documents, such as affidavits and documents that must be certified, and prepare travel paperwork, such as passport applications and proof of identity documents for travelling.
Notaries do not represent clients in court. For example, they don’t assist clients with criminal matters, family matters, or disputes that can end up in court. If a real estate transaction collapses, for instance, and the parties are fighting about who is responsible, a notary can’t help. You can seek the help of a lawyer.
Instead of hiring a lawyer to handle your entire legal matter, you can hire a lawyer to handle specific parts. Doing so “unbundles” these tasks from the parts you can do yourself. With unbundled legal services, you get assistance where you need it most, at a cost you can manage. You pay only for the tasks the lawyer works on.
For example, if you’re going to court, you can hire a lawyer to help you prepare documents or to coach you on how to present your case.
Unbundling works well for many people and many types of legal matters — but not for all. To learn about unbundled legal services and whether it might be a good fit for your situation, see unbundlinglaw.ca.
Steps to choose a lawyer
If you used a lawyer before
You may have used a lawyer for something in the past. They may not be the right fit for your current need, but they may be able to suggest options for you. For example, if you are getting divorced and the lawyer you used before did your will, and does only wills, that lawyer may not be the best one to handle your divorce. But if you were happy with your will, you can ask the lawyer for names of lawyers who specialize in family law. Try to get two or three names, so you can shop around and compare.
Ask friends and colleagues for recommendations
If you’ve never used a lawyer, ask friends and colleagues to recommend a lawyer they used for similar needs. Ask them if they were happy with the lawyer and why. You could also ask your doctor, accountant, or financial advisor. Often, they know lawyers who specialize in certain areas.
Consider legal aid
If you have a low income, and are facing some types of criminal, family, or immigration problems, you may be able to get a lawyer for free from legal aid. Contact the Legal Services Society by visiting legalaid.bc.ca or calling 1-866-577-2525.
Call the Lawyer Referral Service
If you’ve never used a lawyer and you can’t get a recommendation, try the Lawyer Referral Service. Lawyers across BC participate in this service, operated by Access Pro Bono. Visit accessprobono.ca or call 604-687-3221 in the Lower Mainland and 1-800-663-1919 elsewhere in BC.
After you explain your problem, the service will give you the name of a lawyer who does that type of law in your area of the province. You contact the lawyer to make an appointment. The lawyer will meet with you for a free consultation for up to 30 minutes. The lawyer can provide some initial advice on your options. Then, if you and the lawyer agree, you can hire that lawyer at their regular rates. You do not have to use that lawyer. You may decide you do not need a lawyer for your issue, or you may decide to shop around and find another lawyer.
Once you find a lawyer, arrange a time to meet with them. At this first interview, they will want information about you and your situation, in order to provide you with the best advice.
Collect and organize your information
Your lawyer can best serve you if they have a clear picture of your problem and goal. Make notes of all the facts of your case, in an organized way — usually chronologically (by time) is best. Gather and organize all the documents on your case. Bring the notes and documents to the interview.
For example, if you had a car accident, write everything you remember about how the accident happened and your injuries. Draw a diagram of the accident scene. List all your expenses. Bring all your receipts and paperwork, like accident and insurance reports. This lets the lawyer advise you properly and quickly.
Ask lots of questions
At the first interview with a lawyer, they are getting information about you. As well, you are deciding if you want to hire them to help you with your legal matter. Use this opportunity to get as much information as you can. Ask questions, such as:
- Does the lawyer have experience in your type of matter?
- How long will your matter probably take?
- Can the lawyer work on your matter right away?
- What steps will resolve your matter and how much time will each step likely take?
- How will the lawyer keep in touch with you?
Ask about fees and expenses
Always ask about fees and expenses in the first interview. Ask the lawyer to estimate about how much it will cost to fully deal with your legal matter — including fees and expenses (called disbursements). Ask the lawyer:
- How they charge — a flat rate, by the hour, or a percentage of what you win?
- How much is their retainer? (A retainer is the amount to pay before the lawyer starts work.)
- How they will bill you: monthly or at the end?
See our information on lawyers’ fees for more on this topic.
Ask if you have a strong case
In your meeting with the lawyer, they will provide you with their retainer agreement (a type of contract). It outlines how you would work together and how the lawyer’s fee would be calculated and paid. If both you and the lawyer decide to proceed, you would sign the retainer agreement.
Problems between lawyers and clients often result from poor communication. Once you hire a lawyer, tell them you want to be informed of all developments. A good way to do this is having the lawyer automatically send you a copy of all correspondence on your matter. If problems come up, start by discussing your concerns directly with the lawyer. For more, see our information on if you have a problem with your lawyer.
- This information applies to British Columbia, Canada
- Reviewed in March 2018
- Time to read: 7 minutes