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Be wary of the 'free' consultation

People often get exactly what they pay for. This is as true in law asit is in life. Here is one story that should make employees pause whenthey are offered a “free” consultation with a lawyer. 

People often get exactly what they pay for. This is as true in law as it is in life. Here is one story that should make employees pause when they are offered a “free” consultation with a lawyer.

Recently, a client who came to me was seeking a second opinion following a complimentary session with another lawyer. He had found a labour lawyer on the Internet, which doesn’t usually pose a problem, except that this particular lawyer’s website promised that the entire consultation process would be free. Since the client had just been fired, he was unfortunately drawn to the lawyer’s promise, believing that he would get an opinion on his case without spending a dime.

The client submitted a summary of his problem online. The lawyer swiftly replied – providing an “opinion” that, based on the facts of this person’s case, he had been wrongfully dismissed.

The problem, however, is that he was simply wrong.

Most provincial law societies -- regulatory bodies that oversee the conduct of lawyers -- caution lawyers against providing summary opinions without having properly assessed the facts. This is because unsuspecting clients may rely on the advice they were given, however flawed, and take steps that mistakenly prejudice their own case without the lawyer’s involvement.

Based on the advice he had received, the client agreed to meet at the lawyer’s office to further discuss the case. Their meeting lasted 20 minutes, during which the lawyer assured him that his case was a good one and then had the client pay $1,500 so he could review the file and write a demand letter. They then entered into an agreement that permitted the lawyer to bill him based solely on the time he would spend on the file, regardless of the result.

Later on, during the lawyer’s comprehensive review of the file, he discovered that the employment contract the client had signed had all but disposed of the case. The lawyer hadn’t bothered to discuss the contract as a potential problem during their initial meeting (something that most employment lawyers should spot as a matter of course). However, by the time the lawyer realized the significance of the issue, he had already performed hours of work – which, according to the retainer agreement the client had signed, was time that he would be paid for.

Therefore, the client had been billed twice the standard fee that most counsel generally charge for an initial meeting. In other words, this client’s “free” consultation had become something much different. And his cautionary tale is, unfortunately, not an unusual one.

What should employees do? Avoid free legal advice or opinions provided over the Internet, however tempting that may be. Don’t work with lawyers who simply dabble in employment law. Ensure you understand how you will be billed for the lawyer’s time. In a recent British Columbia case, an appeal court struck down a law firm’s bill because the client hadn’t been advised that the firm planned to bill what it considered was a “fair” fee for the work it performed, not simply its hourly rate.

– Daniel A. Lublin is an employment lawyer with the law firm Whitten & Lublin LLP. Reach him at dan@toronto-employmentlawyer.com

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