23 October 2014

Should I Hire an Out of Town Lawyer?



In days of old, your only lawyer choice was the one whose office you walked or drove by everyday, because s/he was in your neighbourhood. While the Yellow Pages and print advertising might have provided you with slightly more choice, almost all those lawyers you saw in print were going to be locals, as mostly only locals were willing to pay the high advertising fees required to reach a particular narrow geographic market. 

The Internet changed all that. 

Now, you've got a choice of millions upon millions of lawyers worldwide. But as children know from their experience in candy stores, too much choice can be as debilitating as too little choice. How's a legal consumer to decide in a world that has gone from famine to feast of choice? 

Those who are most scared of choosing incorrectly might still go with that neighbourhood lawyer you travel by everyday. And many will stick with the tried and true method of lawyer recommendations from friends. You might wind up quite satisfied with the results from those methods. However, the problem is that legal practice (just like medical practice) is becoming highly specialized, and legal fees are increasingly spreading out across of broad spectrum of price points, meaning the local or the referral might not always be your best total value choice.

In the old days, the simple country lawyer did everything, just like the simple country doctor. Neither could afford to specialize, and their clients couldn't easily connect with any alternatives. While the surgeon/paediatrician/family doctor is long gone, the general practice lawyer does continue. You might in fact be served quite well by one, but increasingly they mostly do non-litigious solicitor work: real estate, wills & estates, incorporations, contract drafting. A lot of that kind of work is, in any case, often best done by a local in town lawyer, who has experience with the local legal landscape. 

For legal fields requiring more concentrated expertise, like appeals, tax, customs, the environment, criminal, constitutional, professional discipline, or entertainment law, it might be worth your considering hiring an out of town lawyer. There are a few reasons for doing so.

1. The out of town lawyer might have particular experience and knowledge that you are seeking.

Don't assume that even if you reside in a large city you'll be able to find available and appropriate legal expertise for your needs. For example, in a highly concentrated field like constitutional law, you might find that the local lawyers with expertise can't act for you because of conflicts of interest, or because of their current workload, or because you can't afford their rates. 

Canadian lawyers now have very flexible inter-provincial practice rules (other than in Quebec), so that an Ontario lawyer can likely come to do your criminal appeal in Vancouver, and a Winnipeg lawyer can draft you television script contract in Nova Scotia.

2. Regardless of whether you are in a smaller town or larger city, you might have found that you do not personally get along well with the available lawyers in your town, or might have found that the lawyers you have dealt with won't provide you with the level of personalized and responsive service that you require

The lawyer-client relationship is a very personal, almost intimate one, where both lawyer and client need to have confidence in the other in order for the relationship to flourish. There being all sorts of personality types, it's natural you won't get on with all lawyers you meet. Plus you might find some firms - big or small - offer overly impersonal service, where you don't hear often enough from the lawyer, and your communications aren't promptly returned. 

The Internet is an amazing facilitator of personalized and responsive service. Some of my best clients, with whom I have the best relationships, I've never met. The clients found me on the Internet, liked my level of responsiveness (sometimes being able to get back to them within minutes of being contacted, and usually within the same day), appreciated my experience (obtained practicing in most of Canada's major cities and provinces, at all levels of court), and found my rates reasonable. 

Speaking personally as a consumer, I don't care if I'm able to look a vendor in the eye when I purchase something. What I want is to hire someone who is knowledgable, who treats me with respect, who can answer all my questions, and who provides good value in the product or service I need. 

3. There may be comparative economic advantages to hiring an out of town lawyer

Becoming obsessed with avoiding travel charges from lawyers can turn out to being penny wise and pound foolish (as my Scottish immigrant parents would say), as any travel charges will usually comprise only a very small portion of a total litigation bill. If, for example, the out of town lawyer possesses three times the expertise at half the hourly rate or block fee of the local lawyer, travel charges increasing your total bill by 15% should not be a concern. 

Clearly for lower cost legal services (usually the solicitor real estate/ wills/ incorporation type of thing) you would need to be most careful about travel, but solicitors rarely have a need to travel. For high cost litigation services, you should examine reasonableness of travel costs through the lens of likely number of days in court and level of legal fees charged (be they block fee or hourly rate) for your matter. 

For example, hiring an out of town lawyer to come into town to do an appeal can make a lot of legal and financial sense. An appeal will usually only last for one day, and because no oral evidence would generally be called on an appeal, no prior in-person in town witness preparation would be required. Therefore, your travel costs to bring in out of town counsel for an appeal would usually only be one return air/train ticket or vehicle mileage, plus meals and a hotel for one night. This should be less than 15% of your total legal costs. For block fee criminal matters, out of town counsel might even build their travel charges directly into your quoted rate. 

For other technical litigation matters like tax, customs, professional discipline, and some commercial disputes, out of town counsel might also make sense because the legal arguments will all be created in the lawyer own travel-charge free office and filed with the court in advance, so that the lawyer only need come into town for a few days at most. For federal matters, most proceedings can be moved to Ottawa for hearings upon request, so regardless of where you live in Canada, you could use a lawyer close to Ottawa without worrying about travel charges.

By contrast, bringing in out of town counsel to conduct a four week fact-intensive criminal trial would lead to significantly high travel costs in proportion to legal fees. Though even those costs might be justifiable if you are receiving the level of expertise and service that you desire from that out of town counsel, and her/his legal fees are somewhat lower than local counsel. 

Legal fees charged are generally dependant on level of experience, overhead costs, and local market conditions. So, as I've been a lawyer for two decades, who has appeared in the Supreme Court of Canada several times, my fees would in theory be higher than for a second year lawyer who has only ever appeared at lower levels of court. However, overhead costs for space and staff are much higher in big cities than in small towns, and likewise larger cities tend to encourage higher legal fees being charged for litigation (although not necessarily for solicitor work like real estate). 

Thus, hiring me (as a lawyer located in a smaller centre), might be very cost effective for you in a larger urban centre like Toronto. I'm by no means inexpensive in my local market, but my expertise combined with location and service may make you conclude I'm a bargain in the big city. For solicitor matters like real estate, however, you'll usually find the best total value in retaining local counsel. 

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