When do I call a lawyer?

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Over my years in practice, I have been asked on a number of occasions by individuals who have an apparent legal problem whether or not they need a lawyer. Given that hiring a lawyer is comparable to extensive root canal surgery or the development of a kidney stone, the question is a reasonable one that ought to be put to any lawyer who you may be thinking of hiring.

In some cases, the answer is obvious. If you have been served with a formal, court document I would contact a lawyer immediately given that the Rules of Civil Procedure provide a specified time limit within which a party being sued must respond. Failure to respond within the allotted time frame can result in a default judgment being signed against you. While that may not be the end of the matter, it is a costly and unnecessary expense to attempt to set aside a judgment on the basis that the party allowed the time period to expire without taking the appropriate action. Accordingly, if you are sued, first and foremost, check the document and determine the time within which you must respond. Make immediate contact with a lawyer if you wish to defend and provide that lawyer with a copy of the entire document that has been served upon you. The lawyer then can take appropriate steps to avoid the signing of a default judgment and provide you with an extended opportunity to fully discuss with the lawyer of your choice whether or not the claim ought to be defended.

On the other hand, if you are a party who believes that you have arguable cause of action you may want to consult a lawyer to discuss the alternatives available to you. The institution of formal court proceedings, in my view, is the last action to be taken. Unfortunately, many clients approach a lawyer to discuss their issue without first exhausting all other available remedies. My practice is to meet with a prospective client and to discuss with her the different approaches that might lead to a resolution of the matter. A demand letter or possibly, a four way meeting involving you and your lawyer and the party opposite and his lawyer may avoid the cost and delay of relying upon the Court to resolve your issue. If your claim is for monies due, a demand letter ought to be issued providing the debtor with a reasonable but brief period of time to either pay the debt or make satisfactory payment arrangements. Often, an unpaid debt arises when the creditor has not provided sufficient information to the debtor to fully inform him for what and how much is due. On occasions, invoices and statements forwarded are not always received. There are many other instances where approaching a lawyer at an early stage can be a speedy resolution to a complex problem. I was recently consulted by a dairy farmer from Wisconsin. He had a complex dispute with an individual, with whom he had done business, who resided just outside of Ottawa. It quickly became apparent that while a law suit was possible, in the end, the results of that law suit would be determined by an analysis of the accounting between the parties. Rather than draft a Statement of Claim, I suggested to the client that we develop a proposal that would get the issues before an accountant familiar with the industry whose decision would be binding on the parties. By agreement, it was possible to identify the expert who would ultimately sort out the aspects of the financial relationship in a binding arbitration that could be scheduled within a matter of months rather than issuing a claim through the Courts which would necessarily involve a number of years.

Sometimes when you approach a lawyer for advice, it may result in a recommendation that essentially avoids the need for a lawyer altogether and proposes a resolution process that will be cost efficient and expeditious. From experience, clients are most appreciative if their issues can be resolved without resort to the courts.