More than half the people who walk into family courts in Ontario do so without a lawyer. It’s not surprising, given that a two or three-day trial for a family matter in the Superior Court or Ontario Court of Justice can cost more than $50,000 in legal fees. Still, it’s a high price to pay when self-represented litigants risk losing priceless things such as child custody.
Now, many savvy law firms are responding to this trend by offering limited scope services, including coaching, for self-represented litigants.
Alistair Vigier, CEO of Toronto family law firm ClearWay Law, recently wrote on this subject for Canadian Lawyer Magazine. He recommends that self-represented litigants ask the following questions before hiring a firm for coaching.
1. What is the Scope of Your Services?
A limited scope retainer means the firm will perform a specific task with a clear start and end for the client, rather than being hired on an ongoing basis. For example, a client hiring a child custody lawyer in Kitchener could negotiate a retainer agreement that includes only the services required, such as coaching or limited legal research. Limiting the scope of services ensures the costs remain within the client’s means.
2. What is Your Technology Policy?
Most law firms don’t spend nearly enough time managing their technology, writes Mr. Vigier. Law firms are notoriously old-school; some lawyers still keep their documents in a box in the corner of the room. It is important, then, that self-represented litigants ask about the firm’s technology policy. Not only is it important from the perspective of data protection (since the firm will have access to details about the client’s assets and income in addition to ID and credit card information), but it also impacts the value of services. A firm that still operates on paper filing systems and other outdated procedures will likely charge more for administrative tasks.
3. How Do You Charge?
At this day and age, most firms are willing to provide an estimate for their services up front. This should be mandatory for self-represented litigants seeking coaching on a limited scope retainer. The firm of Mr. Vigier, for example, charges $100 for a one-hour meeting with one of the firm’s family lawyers; this is done to ensure the clients are serious about the value those lawyers bring.
Coaching can help decrease the anxiety associated with going to court and speaking in front of a judge for the first time, giving litigants a better chance of success than they would have going solo. However, self-represented litigants looking to keep costs low should take time to ensure a lawyer is right for them before committing to a limited scope retainer.
As Mr. Vigier writes, “These are fair questions for the modern client seeking strong representation at a reasonable cost.”