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Considerations to determine fit with family lawyer

People working with a family lawyer should always feel comfortable that their objectives are being met, Toronto family lawyer Jennifer Daudlin tells AdvocateDaily.com

“Your relationship with your lawyer is just that, a relationship. If you feel like it’s not going to work, it probably won’t,” says Daudlin, founder and principal of Daudlin Law.

She suggests some key questions individuals could ask their would-be lawyer to help them determine if the fit will be a good one.

What expectations do you have of me as your client and what expectations should I have of you as my lawyer?

“I think this is the most important question because a relationship is a two-way street,” Daudlin says.

Many clients want to be able to hand off the stress that surrounds a separation and divest themselves of some of the responsibility, but that means they don’t necessarily follow up as regularly as is required by the lawyer, she says.

“The flip side is that you have clients who are so invested in their separation that they’re emailing you or contacting you multiple times a day, which does more to increase the cost of their bill than it does to resolve their issues,” Daudlin says.

“At my office, we tend to give very clear guidelines on the expectations of frequency of contact. We expect our clients to be accountable for their case,” she says. “We give them to-do lists ensuring they stick to the timelines for disclosure, and abide by Family Law Rules and legislation, and any expectations that the court, mediator or arbitrator may have of them.”

How much of your practice is dedicated to the particular issue I’m concerned with?

Someone who has experienced domestic violence, for instance, would want to know that a portion of their lawyer’s practice is dedicated to representing victims, Daudlin says. That demonstrates their advocate is familiar with the specific evidentiary issues that may come up, either in advancing the claim or defending it.

“The same is true if you have a financial matter,” she says. “If you are a business owner, you need a lawyer who is well-practised in the business issues that relate to your family law case and there are just some lawyers that are better at it than others,” she says.

How will I be billed? 

“Clients really have a right to know who is going to be working on their file and how much they’re going to be paying for services,” Daudlin says. “Each firm uses its own structures and may bill their assistants' time differently."

How do you typically handle a family law matter? 

“There is always more than one way to approach a case,” Daudlin says.

Someone involved in a separation or divorce hoping for a mediated agreement should look for a lawyer who offers representation services in mediation or other forms of alternative dispute resolution, she says.

“I think it's warranted to attempt to resolve every issue without the need to launch a court case,” she says. “But just because you start a court case doesn’t mean you can’t still try to resolve the matter amicably.”

Are there any other ways to resolve my case? 

“The person looking for a family lawyer needs to ask: ‘What options can you give me?’" Daudlin suggests.

Some lawyers might suggest litigating, others might say mediation is best to help resolve the issues in a particular case, she says.

What is your experience working with others on cases? 

“If a lawyer knows who is going to be working on the opposing side, they should be fairly forthcoming in saying whether it would be a benefit their client that they work with the other lawyer or perhaps suggest the client might be better served going to someone else,” Daudlin says. “We all have a duty to remain professional, but we can work well with some people and we don’t work as well with others.”

Having a familiarity with the courts and the judges in the region can also be advantageous, she says.

Do you have time?

It’s important to understand how heavy a caseload the lawyer is carrying, Daudlin says. The prospective client might ask how many files the lawyer currently has open, she advises.

Ultimately the client wants to know that they can get the attention they want from the lawyer when they want it, she says.

What’s the best way to reach you?

Daudlin says her clients often reach out to her via email, which is vetted by her law clerk. That means when she’s in court or at mediation, her clerk can prioritize the emails and alert her of any that might require her immediate attention.

Do you think we can work well together?

“You’re both going to have expectations of the other and if you can’t communicate respectfully, the relationship is going to break down,” Daudlin says.

She points out that if you don’t like what you hear at a first meeting, it might be an indication that the relationship may not work and advises asking the lawyer their honest opinion about how they feel about working with you.

"A client should remember, though, that unfavourable advice is not necessarily bad advice," she says.

What are the strengths and weaknesses of my case?

To provide the client with the best possible legal advice the lawyer should be forthright about the strengths and weaknesses of the case, something Daudlin calls her reality check.

“It’s rare that a party is going to get everything they want, and usually that’s because the law favours some of their positions more than others,” she says. “Clients who have reasonable expectations are better informed and equipped with the tools necessary to settle their case quickly and more cost-effectively.”

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