What questions should I ask a prospective lawyer?

When you are looking to retain a lawyer, it is really important to determine in advance what your expectations are. Remember, you are buying a service and whenever you are buying something you should keep in mind the adage: "Price Quality Service - Pick Two" because no one can deliver all three.

Questions related to the quality of the end result- that is, good marketable title- are essential because that is ultimately the most important aspect of the transaction. The types of questions in this category relate to the experience of the lawyer and his or her staff. A more experienced lawyer should be able to anticipate potential problems and deal with them more effectively than a less experienced lawyer simply because he has run into these problems before and knows how to deal with them. However, this is only a general rule as some new lawyers are extremely competent and some older lawyers are extremely incompetent. In any event, experience is a factor to be considered.

Questions related to price are often the first questions that clients ask prospective lawyers. I can't tell you how many times in the first few years of my practice I have had prospective clients call me because they are buying a property and ask for a quote on fees. Some of them really were price shopping, but often it was just a case of not knowing what other questions they might ask of their potential lawyer. What a client should be asking for is the total cost including fees and disbursements and land transfer tax and under what circumstances additional fees may be charged. For example, we rarely charge additional fees simply because problems arise during a particular deal where the problem relates to the vendors and their title to the property because that is what we are paid to deal with in the first place. However, we will charge additional fees when the problem arises because of some issue related to our client, such as the need to prepare powers of attorney, clearing executions against our own client, preparing second mortgages and that sort of thing. My personal belief is that a client should neither go with the lowest or the highest priced lawyers because with respect to the lowest priced lawyers you get what you pay for and with respect to the highest priced lawyers you are throwing your money away because there really is an upper threshold as to quality - that is, you either get good title or you don't- and there is also an upper threshold as to service.

Which brings me to the next set of questions, being those related to the service you can expect from your lawyer. In my opinion, the client should be able to expect to meet with the lawyer, not a law clerk or legal secretary, as soon as the deal becomes firm and again when it is time to sign all the closing documents. Further, I believe that the client should be able to expect to speak to the lawyer directly regarding any problems or concerns during the transaction process. This would appear to me to be an acceptable level of service- a client should not expect less, nor should the client need more. However, it is time consuming and cannot be expected of a discount or high volume lawyer because there is just not enough time in the day to give this type of service to a great number of clients. Therefore, you, as the client, must ask the appropriate questions at the beginning of the process to determine what type of lawyer are you retaining, high volume or high service.