4.3 Lawyers


Lawyers are trained to guide you through the legal process and offer legal expertise. A lawyer can explain the legal issues and how the law applies to your situation. This will help you understand the strengths and weaknesses of your case. Hiring a lawyer may be expensive, but it can also save you time and money.

Role of lawyers

Lawyers are highly trained and skilled professionals who can:

  • explain the law to you
  • provide information about settling your dispute without going to court
  • protect your legal rights
  • tell you the strengths and weaknesses of your case
  • advise you how a judge might apply the law to the facts of your case
  • represent you in legal matters
  • write legal letters for you
  • negotiate a settlement
  • complete and file court forms

When you hire a lawyer, he or she is required to represent you and be loyal to you alone. All discussions you have with your lawyer are absolutely confidential.

How to find a Lawyer

There are some things to consider when choosing a lawyer. You are choosing someone to help you with your legal problem and to be your advocate until the dispute is settled, so look for a lawyer who:

  • has good communication skills;
  • explains the law to you;
  • has been recommended by someone you trust; and
  • has experience with the type of legal problem you have.

What to expect from a lawyer

You can expect your lawyer to explain the law to you, as well different options for how to solve the problem without going to court. Your lawyer will give you legal advice, but he or she will not make decisions for you. You must stay involved in your case. You must give your lawyer instructions about how to proceed at every step of the way.

Be sure you understand what the lawyer tells you. If he or she uses a legal term that you do not understand, ask what it means. If you do not understand the lawyer’s advice, you should ask to hear it again. It is always helpful to write down the lawyer’s answers to your questions.

Your lawyer’s expertise is in resolving legal disputes, not personal problems. Remember to restrict your discussions to the legal issues that concern you.

Do I Need a Lawyer?

No. You do not have to have a lawyer if you are getting a separation or divorce. You can represent yourself for as much or as little of the process as you want. Keep in mind that representing yourself does not mean that the court will relax the rules for you. Even as a self-represented litigant, you will be expected to have an understanding of the rules, procedures, and decorum of the court. This course can help you.

A good source of information and advice in a family law matter is a lawyer. Lawyers can help you understand the complex issues that are involved in your case and how best to tackle them.

On the other hand, hiring a lawyer gets expensive quickly. Some family law cases can take years to get through the courts. You may not be able to afford a lawyer. There are different ways to reduce the cost of legal fees as discussed below.  You may also be able to take advantage of a range of other free or low cost legal services.


Paying for a Lawyer

If you decide to hire a lawyer, it is very important to talk to your lawyer about the cost involved and how you will pay your lawyer’s fee.

If you are paying a lawyer for legal services, you can discuss ways to pay your bill. For example, you may not be able to pay the full amount when your case is finished, but you can afford to pay $500 per month until the bill is paid. Most lawyers ask you to pay up front (often called a retainer fee) and use that money for their legal fees as they provide services. If there is money left over that will be returned to you. If the money runs out the lawyer will start charging you directly for their costs. You should always discuss payment options with your lawyer before he or she starts your legal work.


Unbundled legal services

A lawyer might provide limited services to a client. Lawyers call these services "unbundled" or "limited scope" legal services. If you think you can handle some, but not all, parts of your case, you can pay a lawyer to do the parts that you cannot do. It’s an arrangement where you pay only for what you want. It is a mid-way option between full legal representation and no legal representation.

Here are some examples where you might pay a lawyer for limited or unbundled services:

  • You pay the lawyer to research the law for you and explain how much money, if any, you will likely receive if you claim spousal support. The lawyer’s advice will be based on other similar cases that have gone to court.
  • In your claim for property division, your lawyer helps you prepare the documents that are necessary for the court hearing, and gives you advice on how to make your own application in court.
  • In a claim against you for child support, you talk to a lawyer about your obligations and what documents you need to prepare for the court hearing. You prepare your own court documents and hire the lawyer to represent you at the court hearing.

An agreement with a lawyer for any legal work is called a “retainer.” A written retainer letter sets out the work that the lawyer has agreed to do, and what the lawyer will not do. The retainer agreement sets out the scope of your lawyer’s involvement in the file. It is very important that both you and your lawyer understand and agree on which tasks you have asked your lawyer to do. Your lawyer will want to be sure that you understand the work that you will be doing on your own and that you are capable of handling it. Your lawyer will prepare a retainer letter that sets out:

  • the lawyer’s responsibilities and the work that he or she will do (and not do); and
  • your responsibilities and the work that you will do by yourself.

Lawyer’s Tip:

You can help your lawyer a great deal by being organized – put your documents in a logical order, keep a file or binder of your documents, and write a brief summary of the important facts in your case.

You can prepare the Unbundled Legal Services Worksheet on the next page to keep track of what your lawyer will be doing, and what you have agreed to do. Being well organized is probably the most effective thing you can do to help your lawyer and keep your legal costs down.


Getting Ready to Meet a Lawyer

Your first meeting with a lawyer is an important step in dealing with your legal dispute. In addition to giving you a chance to meet each other, you can also learn a lot about your legal dispute, and what the result is likely to be.

What your lawyer will want to know

  • Basic Information: Your lawyer will want to know your situation and the reason that you decided to consult him or her.
  • All relevant information: It is very important to tell your lawyer everything that is related to your dispute, not just the information that supports your side of the story. It is sometimes difficult to know what is relevant and what is not, but your lawyer will help you sort this out.
  • The Truth: It is important to tell your lawyer the truth so they can advise you properly. Remember what you say to your lawyer remains confidential.
  • Documents: You must also disclose all relevant documents to your lawyer. Take a file of documents to your appointment containing such things as letters, court documents, receipts, invoices, and agreements.


Lawyer’s Tip:

It helps to give your lawyer a brief summary of what happened in your dispute, noting the dates that certain events happened (e.g when you were married, children were born, bought a home, etc).

Things you will want to know from your lawyer

It is a good idea to write down questions you want to ask your lawyer. You should also ask about other ways to resolve your dispute without going to court, like negotiation, mediation, or arbitration. In some cases it is far more cost-effective to settle the dispute immediately by paying money or transferring property from one party to another.

Complete the Meeting a Lawyer Worksheet before your first appointment to help make that appointment go smoothly.  Also review the Questions to ask your Lawyer Worksheet so you get a better idea of what to ask you lawyer.