DAWN Ontario: DisAbled Women's Network Ontario


How to Find a Lawyer


Developed by Sheila Gibb and Renu Mandhane
University of Toronto Fall 2000


A. There are some things that can be handled without a lawyer, such as writing a will, going to Small Claims Court, getting a variation to child support, and dealing with a minor traffic charge.

For some more serious family law, criminal law, or immigration matters, a lawyer may be necessary.

In deciding whether you need a lawyer, consider the following questions:

  • How important to you is winning the legal matter? Do you risk losing your children, being deported, or going to jail? Or is there just a small fine at stake?

  • Will a lawyer represent the other side?

  • Are you comfortable going to court and speaking in front of people?

  • Is it safe for you to represent yourself?

  • Is it financially possible for you to hire a lawyer?

  • Are you eligible for legal assistance from Legal Aid or a community clinic?

  • Can you read, speak, and understand English?

If you are dealing with an abusive partner or ex-partner, it is very important
to get a lawyer so that you do not have to come into contact with him.


A. Call the Lawyer Referral Service:

  • Metro Toronto: (416) 947-3330

  • Outside Metro Toronto: 1-800-268-8326

You will get the name of a lawyer who will provide a free half hour consultation. Please note that if you tell them that you are calling regarding domestic abuse or from a shelter or jail, there will be no charge for the call. Otherwise you will have to pay a $6.00 fee for making the initial call.

  • Ask family and friends to recommend a lawyer

  • Ask community agencies to recommend a lawyer

  • Call a community legal clinic


A. Some lawyers charge for their services on an hourly basis. Your bill will depend on the amount of time they spend working on your case.

Other lawyers charge a flat rate, meaning that they charge a certain fee for a certain type of work, such as a will, regardless of the amount of time they spend working on your case.

Most lawyers charge a retainer fee, which is a deposit towards your final bill that you must pay in advance. Usually, a lawyer will not start working on your file until you pay the retainer fee.

Some lawyers may bill clients on a sliding scale, which means that they will charge you less money if you have a low income. You can ask local community legal clinics or women's organizations to recommend such a lawyer.

Some lawyers may allow you to pay your bill in monthly installments.

Ask your lawyer to estimate how much your case will cost, including all fees and expenses. Find out how your lawyer will bill you and what methods of payment your lawyer will accept.


A. A Legal Aid certificate allows you to get legal help without cost. You may be able to get Legal Aid if you have little or no money left after you pay for basic necessities, like food and housing, and if your legal problem is one that Legal Aid covers.

The types of problems Legal Aid may cover include:

  • criminal offences that may result in jail time

  • offences that may result in job loss or deportation

  • child custody and access matters

  • child and spousal support matters

  • sponsorship and deportation appeals

This is not a complete list. Please talk to your local Legal Aid office about your specific case.

To apply for a Legal Aid certificate, go to a local Legal Aid office and fill in the application form. Bring proof of your financial eligibility; for example, bring in pay stubs, monthly bills, medical expenses, etc.

If you are accepted for a Legal Aid certificate and you already have a lawyer, Legal Aid will mail the certificate to your lawyer.

If you are accepted for a Legal Aid certificate and you do not have a lawyer, Legal Aid will provide you with a list of about ten lawyers who accept Legal Aid certificates. You can meet with one of those lawyers. If you do not like the lawyer at the first meeting, try another lawyer. Legal Aid will send your certificate to a lawyer you choose.

If you decide later on that you do not like your lawyer, you can apply to change lawyers at Legal Aid, but this is a difficult process.

It is important to note that many lawyers do not accept Legal Aid certificates.


A. Look for these qualities:

  • Honesty;

  • Skill in the area of law you need a lawyer for;

  • Willingness to really listen to what you are saying;

  • Willingness to explain carefully to you so that you understand everything going on;

  • Willingness to treat you as the boss;

  • Willingness to let you bring a support person or interpreter with you;

  • Willingness to consider meeting you in locations other than her or his office;

  • Openness to discussing different ways to resolve your problem, rather than assuming she or he is the only one who knows what you should do;

  • Willingness to take as much time as you need;

  • Willingness to respond to your phone calls promptly, and do what she or he says in a timely manner;

  • An open and complete billing arrangement, so you know what you are being billed for, when you are being billed for it, and when you need to pay;

  • Experience dealing with abused clients.

Most importantly, make sure that you feel comfortable with your lawyer.
Always remember that you are the boss.


A. You should...

  • Be prepared and organized for your meetings

  • Think about questions for the lawyer in advance

  • Arrive for your appointments on time

  • Take notes during your meetings

  • Read the documents your lawyer sends to you

  • Keep all the documents together

  • Have reasonable expectations - be prepared for delays and disappointments

  • Be honest, open and complete with your lawyer
    Everything you tell your lawyer is confidential.
    Your lawyer will keep what you say a secret.

Trust your instincts. If you do not feel comfortable
with your lawyer, find a new one.


A. Here are some things to consider:

  • Ask about the lawyer's area of expertise

  • Ask about the lawyer's fees and billing arrangements

  • Ask about the office hours, location and accessibility

  • Decide whether the office is located in a safe area

  • Decide whether the lawyer treats you as an equal

  • Decide what you think of the lawyer's staff

Ask some of the following questions:

  • How does the law affect my situation?
  • What choices do I have?
  • How long will my case take?
  • What will you do next?
  • When will I hear from you next?
  • How will you keep in touch with me?
  • What should I do next?
  • Is there anything I should not do?
  • Are my expectations realistic?
  • What is your hourly rate?
  • How much will your services cost?
  • Will I have to pay for anything else?
  • Could anything cause the cost to increase?
  • How much is your retainer?
  • Can I pay with a credit card?
  • Can I pay on a monthly basis?
  • How can I keep costs down?
  • Can someone else in your office give me information about my case?


A. Talk to your lawyer about any problems.

  • It may simply be a misunderstanding
  • Explain how things could be improved
  • Bring another person along if this is helpful

Get a second opinion from another lawyer

If the problem is serious, complain to the Law Society

  • In Toronto call: (416) 947-3310

If you use Legal Aid, apply to change lawyers. If you do not use Legal Aid, you can change lawyers at any time

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Source: Ontario Women's Justice Network (OWJN)

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Page last updated March 22, 2003