How to choose the right lawyer (Part 5)
Most people have little direct contact with the criminal justice system. If you are being investigated or charged with a crime, you should seek experienced legal counsel to guide you through our judicial system. This is the final in a five-part series where I offer advice to people about lawyers and the clients they serve. Read Part 1 here.
There are good reasons for the fees lawyers charge
When people meet me for a free consultation to talk about their case, subjects that invariably come up are the fees I charge as well as my retainer.
For example, someone might come into my office and say, “I have been charged with for impaired driving. What will it cost me to fight that at trial?”
I tell them I can’t quote an accurate figure until I can examine their disclosure, or the information police provide to the Crown attorney’s office to support the charge. With impaired driving allegations, that would include breathalyzer results and the officer’s observations at the time of the roadside stop.
During a consultation, I cannot give an estimate on fees because there are just too many variables. That is especially true if someone is charged with a crime such as assault or anything sexual in nature. Depending on the complexity of the disclosure, I will meet with the Crown and discuss how long they estimate the trial would run. That is dependent on the number of witnesses and the amount of evidence to be introduced to the courtThe Crown might say that they are planning on calling seven witnesses, including a nurse and a police officer, and those who saw the incident. To accommodate all their testimony, I may be told to expect a four-day trial, so I have to prepare for that and charge the client accordingly.
Once I have a good idea of what lies ahead, I can give the client a quote for the next stage of the legal process. That price is locked in, even if there are delays. If we need more time, I do not increase my fee. I do not think it is fair to charge my client for the failure of our courts to move their matter along in a timely fashion. I realize my clients are already anxious as they go to trial, so they do not need me adding to that stress by increasing their fees. Busy courts and rescheduling issues are an unfortunate component of Ontario’s judicial system, and I believe clients should not be penalized for that.
What are block fees?
Some criminal lawyers charge strictly by the hour. I feel it is more transparent and fairer to the client to charge them block fees, along with the retainer. Allow me to explain those terms.
A key part of the lawyer-client relationship is the retainer agreement. This is a document that my clients can keep and review, spelling out the specific legal services that are to be provided. It will also identify some of the rights and responsibilities of both parties.
A block fee is a set amount, agreed upon by the parties, in exchange for taking the client's case to a specific point in the criminal process. I am always upfront as to what the block fees will be and I do not charge extra for phone calls or consultations with clients during this process.
At some firms, clients with questions or concerns about their case have to speak to an assistant to the lawyer handling their case. At my firm clients only deal with me. I know all the details about your case and will be able to answer your questions quickly and efficiently.
How do lawyers justify their retainers?
If you think the cost of retaining a lawyer is expensive, consider the price you may pay by not having competent legal counsel at your side in a criminal trial. Large fines and imprisonment are the two key penalties meted out by the court. Additionally there is the stigma of having a criminal record if you are convicted.
And keep in mind the breadth of experience and education a seasoned criminal lawyer brings to the court. In terms of post-secondary education, those who want to become a lawyer in Canada must first complete a three- or four-year undergraduate degree. They then write the Law School Admission Test (LSAT), which measures their ability to think logically and analytically.
They can then apply to one of the 18 universities in Canada with law schools, which base their acceptance on the student’s LSAT scores and academic grades in high school.
Once enrolled, the student will complete a Juris Doctor or JD law degree. During the summer they may work at law firms, government legal departments or legal clinics doing legal research and gaining insight into the profession.
After they graduate, they must article at a law firm for 10 months under the supervision of a qualified lawyer. In Ontario, articling can be replaced by completing the Law Society of Ontario Law Practice Program.
As a final step, licensing candidates are admitted to the “bar” after successfully writing the Barrister and Solicitor examinations, which focus on areas including criminal procedure, ethical and professional responsibilities and the lawyer-client relationship.
As you can see, lawyers invest a significant amount of time and money into their education, an investment that is reflected in their retainers.
It’s hard to put a price on justice
Anyone in the Ottawa area facing a criminal charge is welcome to contact me for a free consultation to talk about their charge. At the consultation we can discuss your case and what I can do for you, working with block fees every step of the way.