The one thing most people think of when they hear "legal fees" is that they must be expensive.
In some cases, they are. Legal fees for a will or house sale may be reasonable and affordable, but legal fees in a messy family law or civil litigation case can really add up. Complicated cases going to trial will sometimes incur tens of thousands of dollars in fees and disbursements.
All clients would rather not pay more legal fees than necessary. It is therefore surprising how many clients do not take some basic common-sense steps to try to keep costs down. Each case is different, not all lawyers run their practices the same way, and not all strategies will work for all files, but here are some ways clients can keep costs down:
• Ask your lawyer what work you can do on your own file. Gathering bank and investment statements, calling around to find an appraiser or expert to hire, typing out a consent to travel letter, ordering a marriage certificate from out of the country, requesting income tax returns from Revenue Canada — some of these steps do not require a law degree, and you can do them yourself.
• Use phone calls cautiously. A phone call, even meant to ask a quick question, can often be longer than necessary. With fees charged on an hourly rate, clients have to be cautious that they do not mix up a call to a lawyer with a call to a friend. Call to give instructions, ask a status question or a legal question. Do not call immediately after an argument with your former spouse or family member.
• Use email liberally. Security concerns have to be addressed, but email can be very cost-effective for clients. Many are unsure what information is relevant, or what might be relevant in the future. Sending the lawyer an email about an incident is helpful as it can be saved for later if it is not necessary now and reading it is much faster than having a phone call or meeting.
• Stay informed in less expensive ways. The Court of Queen’s Bench in Manitoba has an online registry where clients can see what documents have been filed, what court appearances have been made and what court hearings are coming up. If a client is waiting for an order to be signed by a judge, checking the registry to watch for it is free, calling their lawyer daily to ask about it is not. Also, the Child Support Guidelines (the basic rules and the tables), are online at the Department of Justice website. Many answers to relatively easy legal questions can be found there.
• Use the staff. A large portion of legal fees go to pay for a fully staffed office and the staff can assist clients as well. Make an appointment or give a change of address to the receptionist. If the client needs a copy of a document from their file or is checking on the whereabouts of a court filing or a cheque, call the lawyer’s assistant. Discuss billing questions or payment plans with the office bookkeeper.
Next week, more ideas for saving money on legal fees.
» Jodi Wyman is a lawyer with Paterson, Patterson, Wyman and Abel, with offices in Brandon, Neepawa and Virden.
Republished from the Brandon Sun print edition September 15, 2012