Tuesday, April 27, 2010

Legal DIY

I find that I'm ending almost every entry with "consult a lawyer". It's not designed to be shameless self-promotion. I mean, I'll freely admit that marketing is one objective of this blog, but the primary purpose is to inform, not to sell. To prove it, this entry is about the things for which you shouldn't necessarily consult a lawyer.

A lot of the calls I take are from people who just...need help. Advice, guidance, not necessarily legal expertise. I like to help people; at the same time, there's something a little distasteful about billing my hourly rate to do something that doesn't utilize my significant education, license, or even professional insurance. Sometimes it's common sense. Sometimes the answers to questions are easily found in a fairly brief Google search. Sometimes it's a matter of just picking up the phone to call whatever institution the person is dealing with, and navigating their bureaucratic phone system.

Lawyers serve a purpose. A very important purpose, in fact. But we don't work magic. I absolutely understand the frustration of having to maneouver a company's bureaucracy to get a straight answer, but a lawyer is unlikely to do it with much more ease than the client. (In fact, the representational problem is one more hurdle. Many institutions resist dealing with anybody other than the named individual, or might legitimately need information not immediately available to the lawyer. This makes the interaction even more difficult.) So, rather than sitting on hold with various call centre reps for three hours yourself, your lawyer will do it and charge you several hundred dollars for the privilege.

I once took a call from a person who had successfully navigated the Small Claims Court system up to the point of obtaining a judgment, and had taken several steps to try to enforce the judgment, but found that she wasn't having any success. She wondered if it would be worthwhile to retain me. My answer was simply No. Not a chance. Even assuming that I was ultimately able to help her collect on the judgment, I'd be charging her a lot more money than was at stake in that matter in order to do so. Moreover, it sounded to me like she was handling the system pretty competently herself. So I told her that there's nothing magic that we lawyers can do.

There is a great deal that lay people can do on their own without legal assistance in many circumstances.

(1) Early Stage Conflict Resolution

Talk to the other side. If you feel that you have been wronged, then talk to the responsible party yourself first. Be reasonable, be calm, don't threaten, don't bluster, and don't make any concessions you're not prepared to be held to. (In some circumstances you can argue that such concessions shouldn't be used against you later, but not always.) The limitation here is that, if you're operating without legal advice, you may not know what your rights and remedies are. But in many cases, it doesn't take a legal expert to know what needs to be fixed.

Often, folks will call me just to engage in the negotiation stage on basic disputes like a bill being too high, etc. They want me to do it because they think a letter from a lawyer will have more impact. People expect others to be intimidated by lawyers. Sometimes this is true. I don't consider myself to be necessarily intimidating. As a matter of style, I think I'm more effective in resolving conflict by trying to get the other side to be reasonable than trying to get them to be afraid. The only really intimidating thing about being contacted by a lawyer is that it shows how seriously the client is taking the problem, in that they're prepared to pay the lawyer a whole lot of money to handle it.

Sometimes it may help. In my estimation, it's rare that the resolution achieved that way is so much better as to make the legal help worthwhile.

Of course, when dealing with more complicated legal questions, like "What's a dismissed employee entitled to?" or "What are the scale of damages on this breach of contract?", that's a different matter. Maybe you need a lawyer to put together a demand letter...but that's because the lawyer knows better than you what to ask for, as opposed to knowing how to ask.

(2) Google is Your Friend

Not that Google is the only search engine, but this is Blogspot, and Google is my usual first line of searching. Many times, where there's a problem to be solved, the answer is on the internet. Even quasi-legal questions have abundant resources on the internet. A question about your statutory employment rights? Look at the Ministry of Labour web site. (A caution: That only deals with statutory rights; sometimes, an employee will have additional rights, and can actually lose those rights in some cases by going to the Ministry.) A question about crossing the border? Check out the CBSA web site.

When I was in high school, I took a job in which I wasn't getting paid for "training" or various other activities. Training was on-the-job, being shown how to do the job and being supervised while you did it. Well, not even that, sometimes. On one occasion, when I was still an unpaid trainee, I ended up closing my section of the store myself; everyone else had gone home.

Ridiculous. I knew that this was wrong. I knew that I had entitlements that weren't being met. Trouble is that I didn't know what the recourse was, what could be done about them. This was in the early days of the internet, when there wasn't a great deal of information online. Now, it's easy for any tech-savvy lay person to find abundant information on how to respond to this sort of thing. Don't spend money on a lawyer when you can do it yourself.

(3) User-Friendly Venues

Part of my job is to help people navigate elaborate legal processes. The Rules of Civil Procedure are not exactly accessible to your average lay person, and it usually takes experience to turn the contents of that rather lengthy document into the real tangible steps of a legal proceeding.

But not everything needs to go to the Superior Court. The Small Claims Court in Ontario now has a monetary jurisdiction of up to $25,000, and it is designed to be accessed by self-represented litigants. Again, lots of resources online to help with this. That's not to say that it's an easy process, and you're still limited in that you don't have a lawyer to help you understand and address the strengths and weaknesses of your case, but if you have a claim worth a few thousand dollars, you're still usually going to be better off going to Small Claims yourself than to pay a lawyer to do it.

Likewise, you don't necessarily need a lawyer to make a complaint to the Ministry of Labour. The paperwork for making an Application to the Human Rights Tribunal of Ontario is fairly straightforward, and all their jurisprudence is published online for free. (Though free legal assistance is available to Applicants in that kind of process.)

(4) Paralegals

Less expensive, sometimes even more experienced in some venues. As noted earlier, make sure they're licensed.

(5) Letting it slide

Sometimes, the cost of fixing a problem simply isn't worth getting it fixed. When you have a car worth $500 that needs $1500 worth of work put into it...you get rid of the car, right? Same thing with law. If you have a claim worth $1000, why on earth would you pay a lawyer $10,000 to make it for you? If you can't pursue it yourself, it isn't likely to be worth pursuing at all.

As a professional I aim to deliver value for money. If my services are more expensive than they're worth, then not only will you not be happy at the end of the day, but neither will I.

My job isn't to intimidate, nor to put on a show. My job is to provide expert advice and representation on legal issues. And this is important. If you want an assessment of whether or not you have a case, you need a lawyer. If you need an opinion as to what kind of damages you might be able to seek, talk to a lawyer. If the case is worth the cost of having it presented in an expert fashion, retain a lawyer. But when deciding to consult a lawyer, you need to understand the limitations of the role of a lawyer, the purpose of a lawyer, and the cost of a lawyer.


This Blog is not intended to and does not provide legal advice to any person in respect of any particular legal issue, and does not create a solicitor-client relationship with any readers, but rather provides general legal information. If you have a legal issue or possible legal issue, contact a lawyer.

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