You’ve decided you need legal advice. But you may not be sure how to get it. We’re here to help.
The first thing you have to do is find a lawyer
All lawyers specialize in a particular area of the law, and the first thing you need to figure out is what area of specialization you need.
In the case of workplace sexual harassment, you are probably looking for an employment or labour lawyer, and ideally one with experience in harassment or discrimination. If you’re planning to file a claim with a human rights commission, you may want to seek a lawyer who specializes in human rights. But there aren’t a lot of lawyers who specialize in human rights law, and if you can’t find one, an employment or labour lawyer is probably your best bet.
You may think you can get a lawyer for free through legal aid, but you probably can’t. All provinces and territories in Canada do offer legal aid services, but many don’t help with employment or human rights issues. Also, legal aid is only normally available for people who make about $25,000 a year or less.
Here are the best ways to find a lawyer:
- Word of mouth: Does someone in your network have a recommendation? Many people find their lawyer through recommendations from friends and acquaintances. If you are lucky enough to know somebody who had an issue similar to yours and was happy with the lawyer they used, that is great and you should consider that lawyer. If someone you know is close to a lawyer who doesn’t specialize in the area of law you need, you could call that lawyer and ask for a referral. It’s normal for lawyers to make referrals, and they will probably be happy to do it.
- All provinces and territories except Saskatchewan and New Brunswick operate lawyer referral services that connect people with participating lawyers. Usually, those lawyers offer a 30-minute meeting for free or a small fee. After that, you can choose to hire the lawyer—or not. If you don’t think the lawyer you’ve been referred to is a good fit, you can ask for another referral.
- The Canadian Bar Association offers a Find-A-Lawyer search tool where you can look up lawyers near you who specialize in the type of law you need. Usually, the lawyer will agree to give you a 30-minute meeting for free.
- Google is your friend! A lot of people find lawyers just by searching online. Some lawyers blog or write columns or appear in the media, and that can give you a great sense of who they are and what they’re like. Searching online can also help you find a lawyer or firm that specializes in supporting people like you. For example, if you are Indigenous, 2SLGBTQIA+, or an immigrant to Canada, you may be able to find a firm with special expertise that’s relevant to you and your case.
- If your income is too high to qualify for legal aid but too low to afford regular legal fees, you might qualify for JusticeNet. It’s a national not-for-profit directory of lawyers and paralegals who offer services at a reduced fee for people who are experiencing financial difficulties and who have a net family income under $90,000.
If you know you can’t afford a lawyer and you live in Ontario, you might be able to seek help from a paralegal instead. Paralegals can’t do everything a lawyer can do (for example, they can’t represent you in civil court) and they don’t have as much legal education. But there are lots of things they can do, and they charge about half of what a lawyer does.
How to decide who to hire
Obviously cost is a factor, and we’ll talk about that in a moment. But it’s also important to choose someone you feel you’ll be comfortable with. Do you like this person? Do you find them easy to understand? Do you feel safe talking with them?
Some lawyers offer trauma-informed services. This is a commitment to engage with clients who have experienced trauma in ways that are safe, empowering, and collaborative.
If you’re considering hiring a particular lawyer, it’s worth looking them up on Google Maps or Yelp to see if anybody has reviewed them there. You can also check the Better Business Bureau for reviews and complaints. You can also see what cases they’ve handled by checking CanLII, a free database for legal decisions in Canada.
When you and the lawyer first meet, here are some questions you might want to ask:
- How many cases like mine have you handled?
- Do you have any reported cases?
- How did they turn out?
- How long do you expect my case to take?
- What are the legal options available to me?
- How does the law apply to my case?
- What will be the next steps?
- What should I do or not do as my case goes forward?
- What expectations can I have about the outcome?
How much it’s going to cost
Lawyers structure their fees in different ways.
Some operate on a contingency basis, which means they don’t charge you at the beginning but will keep a percentage of any money they win for you, like maybe 30% or more of the total award. The Law Society of Ontario offers good information and advice about contingency fees here.
But most lawyers charge by the hour.
A lawyer’s hourly rate depends on a number of things:
- how experienced they are
- what size firm they work for—smaller firms are often cheaper
- where in the country you are—rates in smaller places can be cheaper than in big towns
Most lawyers’ hourly rates start around $400. Sometimes your lawyer will also work with a less-experienced lawyer or a paralegal, who they supervise and whose hourly rate is lower. Your lawyer will also charge you for expenses (officially called disbursements), which are things like photocopying fees and court filing fees. But the majority of the cost of a lawyer is usually their hourly rate.
The most effective way to keep your costs low is to limit what you’re asking them to do. If you want to start a complicated legal action that might end up in court, with lots of phone calls and preparation, that will be expensive. If you just want the lawyer to write a letter or file a document, that will be much cheaper.
When you meet with a lawyer and describe what you want them to do, unless it’s very simple, they won’t be able to tell you exactly what it will cost. That’s normal and it doesn’t mean they’re untrustworthy. They just don’t know how complex the work will turn out to be, so they don’t know how much time it will take.
If you hire a lawyer who charges by the hour, you may be asked for a retainer, which is an amount of money up front—say, $2,000—before they start work on your case. When that’s used up, they will ask you for more.
Some lawyers charge a block rate. This means you pay one fee for the whole job. A block rate is a good way to cap your costs, because whatever you’re quoted at the beginning will be the maximum you will pay for the job, unless the case unexpectedly becomes way more complicated. This allows people to avoid a situation where they get halfway through a legal case and then run out of money.
Normally your lawyer will make a contract for your work together (sometimes called an engagement letter) that includes a fee agreement outlining how you will be billed. They should regularly send you statements showing you how much they have charged you, and for what.
It’s totally okay to ask questions about fees, and how you can keep them low! Lawyers know they are expensive, and they know it’s not an expense that people have budgeted for. They are usually very comfortable talking about how to minimize your costs.
Working with your lawyer
You are the boss. Your lawyer won’t do anything you don’t ask them to do and won’t do anything without your approval. They will present you with your options, and you will decide what to do. That doesn’t mean they won’t advise you; they will. But you will get to make the final decision.
Review with them what they can and cannot do for you, and what your role will be when you are working together. Having a clear idea about what you can expect can help avoid misunderstandings.
Your lawyer will need information from you. This is where your documentation comes in. See Document Everything. You can keep your legal costs low by providing documentation that’s clear and well organized, and by being focused and brief when you talk with your lawyer. You will normally be paying for every minute that they spend with you, even for short phone calls and email exchanges.
What a lawyer can’t do for you
It’s very common for people to go to a lawyer because they want the legal system to validate them and give them justice. But it’s your lawyer’s job to tell you what’s realistically possible, and the truth can be very disappointing. It’s worth trying to be realistic about what the legal system can and cannot give you, so you don’t end up feeling let down.
If you are lucky, your lawyer will be empathetic and kind.
But your lawyer is not a therapist, and they can’t be your source for mental health support. They aren’t trained to do it, and they are too expensive. It’s a good idea to get support to help you process the trauma you’ve experienced, and you should seek it from someone who is not your lawyer.
Your lawyer is also not your friend. They need to have a professional relationship with you, so they can be objective about your situation and give you realistic advice. It’s a good idea to surround yourself with warmth and emotional support, but you shouldn’t be seeking it from your lawyer.
Your lawyer is also not your career coach. They can’t necessarily advise you about how a particular decision might affect your career, and you shouldn’t expect them to. You should seek that kind of advice from people in your industry who you trust.
Confidentiality, privilege, and honesty
Anything you say to your lawyer and anything they learn about you from working on your case, no matter where it comes from, is confidential. Your lawyer cannot repeat what they know about you to anyone outside of their firm without your permission. This means that, if you end up in court, for example, what you’ve said to them will be private. Lawyers are normally very good at maintaining confidentiality and you shouldn’t need to worry that they won’t.
Any communication between you and your lawyer about the legal advice they are giving you is privileged, including emails, texts, and letters. These are private and cannot be shared with anyone outside of their firm unless you agree. Lawyers are good at this, too.
It’s common for people to not tell their lawyer things that make them look bad, because they’re embarrassed, or because they think their lawyer will work harder if they like and respect them. But you should always be honest with your lawyer. It’s unlikely you will shock them, and they need to know the truth, so they can construct a case that helps you.
If things go badly
Lawyers do not control the outcome of your case, and they cannot guarantee that you’ll get what you want. If a lawyer guarantees you success, they might not be a very good lawyer.
Here are some signs suggesting you might have
a bad lawyer:
- They promise they can get you the exact outcome you want.
- Their fee structure isn’t clear, or they didn’t give it to you in writing.
- When they explain things to you, you don’t understand what they’re saying.
- They often seem distracted, stressed, or overwhelmed.
- They don’t remember who you are, or forget details of your case.
- They are cold or rude.
- They don’t return your calls or emails.
- They are regularly late.
- They make important decisions about your case without discussing them with you first.
- They make mistakes, like missing deadlines or filing paperwork incorrectly.
- Other legal professionals (like court clerks, judges, and opposing counsel) don’t seem to respect them.
One of the most common complaints about lawyers is a lack of communication. Sometimes, lawyers who are great at their jobs have a difficult time dealing with clients and communicating effectively. You may find a lawyer who is very good at what they do, but you will still have a poor relationship because of their bad communication skills.
If you have a complaint
If you believe your lawyer is doing a bad job, you can complain to the management of their firm, who may be able to fix the problem. If that doesn’t work, then the place to take your complaint is the provincial law society. Some law societies will take complaints about lawyers’ fees, and all law societies are responsible for disciplining members who have violated standards of conduct.