It’s up to the lawyer as to whether he or she will charge for an “initial consultation.” Usually when I get a “cold call,” it’s from someone who’s read my books, articles and other publicly available information on the Web.
I’ll often spend quite a bit of time with them on the phone for free just to save them from having to fight downtown traffic and pay for parking. But I’ll have to make a judgment at some point during the call whether I’m talking to someone who’s just shopping around for free advice. Telling them at some point in the call that to go further, I’ll need them to sign an engagement letter and pay a retainer will separate the tire kickers from the serious clients, because at some point, I have to get back to the work that pays the bills.
I don’t believe lawyers should be “taxi drivers” and bill their time for every second they work on a file. Time on a file should be a guide only, and on large projects there’s always give and take, because usually, you don’t want the client to fire you and find another lawyer. I’ve had a lot of the same clients for 10 years or more, and if there’s a big bill, we always talk about it before I send it; in part, so we can massage the amount before it goes out, and also because clients like to be kept informed and included in the decision. My clients also pay right away when they’ve agreed on the bill before it formally goes out. Communication is the key to happy clients, and lawyers.
Lawyers can charge more than their hourly rate if the service was worth more. So if 15 minutes of my sage advice saved a client $500,000 because of my knowledge and experience, I’m entitled to charge more money based on the value that I’ve provided. That’s because the advice was worth more than $100 and saved the client a bundle.
But you might have a dispute with a lawyer about an account. Every province has a way that clients can challenge the legal fees charged by lawyers, and judicial officers are charged with assessing whether an account is a fair fee in the circumstances. The law society in your Province will have a tab on its web page about how to challenge a lawyer’s account.
You can always fire your lawyer if you aren’t happy, and if you aren’t getting good, responsive service or good advice at a fair fee, you should. However, your lawyer has no obligation to forward your file to you or your new lawyer unless the old account has been settled. Your new lawyer may not be able to do anything without the old file, but that’s the point. It’s called a solicitor’s lien, and it’s quite normal.
Finally, lawyers can fire our clients too. I’ve done it a few times, very politely, over the past 25 years when clients are unreasonable, disrespectful or don’t pay their accounts, and it still amazes me how upset they get when it’s me that does the firing. “You can’t do that!” they say. Oh yes I can. It’s a relationship, and it has to work both ways. I like what I do and I really like my clients. But life’s too short to work for people I don’t want to work for.
Special to the Globe and Mail
Vancouver franchise lawyer Tony Wilson is the author of Buying A Franchise In Canada – Understanding and Negotiating Your Franchise Agreement and he is ranked as a leading Canadian franchise lawyer by LEXPERT. He is head of the Franchise Law Group at Boughton Law Corp. in Vancouver and acts for both franchisors and franchisees across Canada, many of whom are in the food services and hospitality industry. He is a registered Trademark Agent, an Adjunct Professor at Simon Fraser University and he also writes for Bartalk and Canadian Lawyer magazines.