For many people facing the breakdown of a relationship or other family law matters it can be difficult to decide whether to hire a lawyer or to represent themselves and try to resolve their matter “outside of the formal system.” Even if their matter does end up before the courts, many people are unsure about hiring a lawyer for many reasons. A few of those reasons are that lawyers are seen to be expensive and a perception that the parties involved know their family better than any lawyer possibly could. It can be difficult to conceptualize the value proposition a lawyer offers as we are paid in large part for the knowledge inside our heads more than for a concrete product. Finally, as our society moves more and more towards freedom of information and a do-it-yourself approach to everything from home renovations to legal representation, the courts and governments are increasingly offering services to assist people in representing themselves in court. Most good lawyers, however, would tell you that they would never represent themselves in their own matter. So what is it that lawyers know that non-lawyers do not? This post explores some of those secrets and the key reasons why hiring a lawyer is your best bet at navigating this difficult time in your life.
1. A Lawyer is an Expert in the Practice of Law
Would you seriously consider performing your own surgery or plumbing? If like most people you answered no, then why would you consider presenting your case to a court?
A high standard of training and education is required to become a lawyer in Alberta. Most lawyers in Alberta have some type of 3 or 4 year bachelor’s degree and all lawyers in Alberta have a 3 year degree in law (or equivalent) and 12 months of on the job training under the supervision of senior lawyers (called articles). I have a 4 year bachelor’s degree from the University of Toronto, a 3 year undergraduate law degree from the University of British Columbia and a 1 year Master of Laws degree from the London School of Economics. In addition I spent 12 months learning the practice of law under the supervision of senior lawyers during my articles. In addition to these educational and training requirements, in order to become a lawyer in Alberta students are required to successfully complete competency based coursework during their articles. Even after becoming a lawyer, lawyers are continuously learning. Since becoming a lawyer in 2012, I have continued to learn on the job by working with senior lawyers, working on other client’s cases and networking and brainstorming legal issues with others in the legal community. Like most lawyers in Alberta I also participate regularly in continuing learning courses and seminars on topics relevant to my areas of practice. I also continuously read new cases in these areas of law as they are released by the courts, read articles written by law professors and other lawyers, and notices to all lawyers issued by the courts and the Law Society of Alberta.
Lawyers are also highly regulated and are held to a very high standard of professional ethics and conduct. We are guided and bound by our Code of Conduct as well as the Rules of the Law Society of Alberta. One of our mandatory duties is that we owe our clients the duty to provide competent legal services. What this means for you the client, is that I have a mandatory obligation to be knowledgeable about the area of law in which I am providing you services.
Finally, like most lawyers I practice law full time. Also, like most lawyers I practice in a few discrete areas of law. This is all I do, 40+ hours per week. I know the steps involved in taking your family law case from beginning to end. I know the various options available to resolve your case. I know the correct format for your court documents and know the legal test the court will apply if your matter ends up in front of a judge. If I do not know the legal test off the top of my head, I know how to quickly and easily research the legal test. This allows me to understand very quickly what facts are relevant to the judge in deciding your case and which are not. Presenting only relevant facts to the judge makes for a polished, concise, and efficient presentation of your case.
Non-lawyers do not have most, if any of the qualities outlined above. Non-lawyers typically interact with the legal system a few specific times throughout their lives: when they buy a home, when they go through the breakdown of a significant relationship, and for wills and estates matters. Non-lawyers who own or run businesses may also deal occasionally with corporate lawyers and tax lawyers. These brief interactions do not equip the non-lawyer to manage a family law case from beginning to end.
Many self-represented litigants are very intelligent and educated people. They may have a bachelor’s degree like any lawyer. Some may even have advanced degrees in non-legal fields. No doubt some of these parties have the intellectual capacity and other qualities required to successfully practice law. However, as they are not lawyers, they do not have a 3 year law degree, they have not spent 12 months of on the job training under the supervision of senior lawyers, they do not attend continuing education seminars, and they do not keep up to date on the latest developments in the law by reading new cases as they are released by the courts. Finally, they lack the experience and understanding of the process gained by working on hundreds of other family law cases.
2. A Lawyer can Help you Achieve Finality and Certainty so you can Move on with your Life
Many self-represented parties find themselves stuck in an endless mountain of red tape and court proceedings. A lawyer has the knowledge to educate you about your options which will empower you to make informed decisions and to help you to tailor your goals to fit within what is achievable. Self-represented parties may be stuck in an endless cycle of court proceedings because they do not understand the process or are taking a position that will never be successful. A lawyer can sometimes walk into a situation like this and resolve your matter more quickly than you ever thought possible by guiding and directing your court matter towards a resolution.
A lawyer also knows that court is not the only option to resolve family law matters. A lawyer can help guide you as to whether your situation requires a court proceeding or whether it can be resolved in another manner such as negotiation or mediation. Lawyers have certain instincts about what may be effective in your particular case gained through their experience in working on similar cases.
Even those cases where people part ways on decent terms and can agree between themselves on how to separate assets are best served by engaging the services of a reputable family law lawyer. Did you know that a do-it-yourself separation agreement signed without each party obtaining independent legal advice is unlikely to be upheld by the courts in the future? Hiring a lawyer now when everyone is on relatively good terms and is in agreement with the contents of the agreement can save you much more expensive legal bills in the future when that good relationship breaks down for whatever reason and one of the parties no longer wants to stick to the terms of your agreement. A properly drafted agreement, created for your specific situation by a lawyer familiar with your circumstances and signed by each party with a certificate of independent legal advice, which only a lawyer can provide, is your best security and defence. With that type of agreement in place you can move on confidently from your past relationship and make a fresh start.
Finally, while nothing in family law is ever truly settled or final, especially where minor children are involved, a lawyer has the foresight to help you design and negotiate solutions that will work for your family into the foreseeable future, letting you move on with your life. For example, a lawyer will remind you to think about and make provision for important future milestones such as “where will the children be enrolled in school?” These questions may not come to mind for a self-represented litigant because it is not the urgent important issue to be decided right now. This means you will be back arguing or in court when school enrollment comes around. Lawyers use their experience gained from many years of practice and other cases to guide you towards resolving the issues that most often cause families difficulties down the road. On this type of file, it is my goal to help you come to a resolution that works for your family not just now, but into the future and to get you to a place where you can move on and no longer have lawyers or judges in your life. This result is achievable in most cases but it can be very hard to get to without the assistance of a lawyer.
3. A Lawyer has Time to Devote to your Case
This point may seem hard to believe or be counterintuitive because lawyers are often very busy and some can be hard to reach. However, that is mostly because of the nature of our work, not because we do not have time to devote to your case. A lawyer can be hard to reach because they are in client meetings, in court, mediation or settlement meetings with their clients, or are spending quiet time performing legal research or other work on their client’s files.
In addition to the lawyer themselves, most lawyers draw on a number of other staff and professionals to manage your family law matter. Most lawyers will have legal assistants, court runners to file documents at the courthouse and other government offices, and relationships with other experts who may be required to resolve your matter such as tax lawyers, mediators, realtors, and accountants. Some lawyers also use the services of external contract paralegals, external research lawyers or other non-lawyers who perform legal research, and others. Some lawyers will have articling or summer law students and depending on the size of the firm will have partners and/or associate lawyers. Most lawyers, whether working formally with other lawyers or not, have the ability to draw on an extensive network of other lawyers to discuss and brainstorm their files where a difficult or unusual legal issue appears.
The lawyer has set up their office and an entire structure to help shepherd your family law case from beginning to end. The lawyer and their staff spend 40+ hours per week helping their clients move their cases towards resolution and ensuring that resolution is properly documented to provide the clients with a level of comfort to be able to move on with their lives.
You, on the other hand, have better things to do with your time. You have a job, you want to spend time with your children, you want to get out of town for the weekend. Managing a family law file is very time consuming, especially for a self-represented litigant who is unfamiliar with the system. As one very simple example, filing documents at the courthouse may take 2 hours out of your day and can only been done during business hours. Unlike you, the lawyer’s court runner knows exactly which counter your documents need to be filed at and he is filing documents for 10 different cases at the same time leading to efficiencies that you can never achieve on your own as you only have one case. By retaining the lawyer, you gain access to this valuable service and have just saved yourself 2 hours. At my law firm, I will charge you only $10 for each document filed by my court runner in your case which I believe is an excellent value proposition. Other lawyers have similar charges for court running services.
There are also many steps that your lawyer can take on your matter on your behalf without you needing to be present at all. This includes some court appearances. If you have been representing yourself in your family law matter and you retain a lawyer to represent you, you will immediately see a huge difference in the amount of time your case takes out of your day-to-day life.
4. Your Lawyer is Impartial
This point should not be overlooked. This is probably the number one reason lawyers would never represent themselves but also probably the least well-known or understood reason to hire a lawyer by the general public.
Family law is one of the most emotionally charged areas of law as these are some of the cases that affect people’s lives most directly. Most people are not involved in a family law case because of a pleasant life event. We are most often dealing with the breakdown of a relationship and negotiating very difficult situations often times involving children. Even financial issues in family law are emotionally charged as the separation of assets and support payments affect what people’s lives will look like into the future. It is understandable that clients with family law cases are dealing with a range of raw emotions. Some of those emotions include hurt, anger, disappointment, vengefulness and fear.
Simply put, in this emotional state you cannot see the forest for the trees. A lawyer can. While a lawyer can be empathetic with the client’s situation, a lawyer cannot allow themselves to become emotionally involved in your case. In fact lawyers take this duty so seriously that our Code of Conduct dictates that we must decline to represent you if we cannot be impartial (usually because of a pre-existing relationship with you) or withdraw from representing you if we become emotionally involved for some reason and cannot provide you with impartial representation.
A lawyer has a duty to look out for your best interests. As part of that duty a lawyer will help educate and guide you as to what you can realistically expect in your case. A good lawyer will be tough with you when you need it and call you out on taking an unreasonable position from a place of fear or vengeance. At the end of the day, a good lawyer will help you to the best possible outcome taking into account all of the circumstances of your unique case and put you in a position to pick up the pieces and move on with your life.
5. A Lawyer may Save you Money
This final point may also seem hard to believe but it is true. Yes, lawyers are expensive, although maybe not as expensive as you think. A good lawyer will provide excellent value for the money spent and the decision to hire a lawyer may save you money in two key ways.
Firstly, a lawyer may achieve a better result for you than you could have achieved on your own. There are many financial aspects to family law cases, mostly in the areas of division of matrimonial property and support payments. A lawyer will be familiar with the law and arguments which may apply to your situation and assist you in achieving a good financial outcome. For example, did you know that there are special child support considerations for payors with incomes over $150,000? Even assuming you successfully researched the applicable law and arguments which would support your case, a lawyer will use their experience and skills to present your case to the court in a more polished and succinct manner which may lead to a better outcome than you could have achieved. A lawyer may also offer suggestions on how to structure financial settlements in ways that will lessen the impact on your day to day life. You may not have thought of these alternate structures without the assistance of a lawyer.
Finally, a lawyer may assist you in avoiding expensive awards of court costs. Did you know that in Alberta the general rule is that a successful party in a court application, hearing, or trial is entitled to “costs”? Costs awards in Alberta are at the discretion of the presiding judge but there is a standardized chart of costs which the courts often follow. Costs awards are often in the range of $500 for a simple application to thousands of dollars in a trial. For context, losing a one day trial will often result in a costs award made against you in the range of $5000-$10,000. A lawyer will help you to avoid these expensive orders being made against you in many different ways. Firstly, a lawyer will remind you of the potential of a costs award being made against you when discussing potential court applications. A lawyer will also advise you against bringing court proceedings you are sure to lose and will also advise you against taking unreasonable positions. You may not be able to easily identify court applications that you are sure to lose or positions that are unreasonable because you lack the knowledge of the law and the experience of a lawyer. Finally, a lawyer will help you to mitigate the risks of costs awards by encouraging you to make settlement offers or otherwise resolve your issue before a costs award is made against you.