This blog is a bit of a “refresher” of my very first blog from early 2019 entitled “Do I Need a Family Law Lawyer.” With the events over the past 4-5 years that we all had to live through, including the Covid-19 pandemic, the changing economic realities (locally and globally), and the major developments in in artificial technology, I felt that this topic needed to be discussed. I will underline what has changed since my last blog, for emphasis.
I have now been practicing law for almost 30 years now, and I continue to see an increase in the number of people who choose not to hire a lawyer in family court. When I was called to the Ontario Bar in 1994, about 20% of family law clients did not have a lawyer. Depending upon who you ask, in some courthouse in Ontario, that number is now as high as 80%.
There are many reasons that people give as to why they cannot, or will not, hire a family law lawyer, but there are 2 main reasons I hear most: cost and value.
With regards to costs, family lawyers’ fees can range from about $110.00 per hour (the basic legal aid rate) to as high as $1,000.00 (depending upon the city and what the local legal market will bear). Most lawyers charge somewhere in between these two amounts. As of this blog, my hourly rate is $350.00 per hour.
I won’t lie to you. This is not cheap. But unlike other services that you purchase in your life, hopefully you will not have to use a lawyer more than a few times in your life (such as buying or selling a house, doing your will and powers of attorney, going to court, etc.). People need to understand that as lawyers, we don’t make “widgets” – we sell our time, our experience and our advice to the public. How much this will cost a client depends upon many things, including:
- the level of experience of the lawyer (more experience = high costs)
- the complexity of the case (more complex = higher costs)
- the reasonableness of the client (more reasonable = lower costs)
- the reasonableness of the other party (less reasonable = high costs)
A prudent lawyer will do what is needed to get the best result for the client in a cost-effective and timely manner. This can be in as little as a few weeks or a few months. In some cases, if it needs to go to trial, it may take a year or more, but these are the exceptions, not the norms. Generally, less than 5% of cases go to trial. A family law lawyer can help you settle your case out of court, but only if it’s in your best interests to do so. Without a family law lawyer, you are gambling on whether you will successfully resolve one of the most critical matters in your life. As I said in my earlier blog, now is not the time to cheap-out.
Coming out of the Covid pandemic and all the changes that it brought, lawyers need to better understand that for their clients, money is tight for them. Job security is not assured as it once was, expenses have gone up, and business are cutting corners to make ends meet. As a result, some ingenious entrepreneurs came up with different models of artificial intelligence (AI) to replace some, part, or all the work that others now do, to save people money, and to have the entrepreneurs make money. The legal profession is one area that has been ripe for years to see the implementation of technology to allow people to get better results for betters costs. Gone are pens and (most) paper – we have computer technology now. Gone are land registry offices – they have been replaced by digital databases with all the necessary information stored at the user’s fingertips. Gone are all the unnecessary trips to courthouses …. Or is it gone? Well, not completely. Zoom Courts do exist, and it is here to stay, but there are competing factions out there: some people profess the old ways (and days) were better, and others swear up and down that the modern technology is a game changer that is here to stay.
As for family law work, two of the major costs for clients are document preparation and legal research. Not only does someone, usually a clerk but sometimes the lawyer, have to generate the court documents from scratch, they must often do the tedious legal research to support the legal positions. Computers have been involved in both these functions for the last 35 years or so, and they have helped do minimize some time and expense (no need for carbon copies, typewriters, and going to law libraries to physically dust off old legal tomes), but over the last year or so, there is emerging technology to help legal professionals, and those needing them, to do things quicker and cheaper.
As of the date of this blog, the spring of 2023, we are on the cusp of having an AI computer program prepare a court application for family law orders. We must still enter the parameters to make it client-specific, but we are almost there. At the same time, we will soon be able to ask an AI computer program to give us the most current case law regarding the contentious issues.
But let me stop and point something out – did you notice the few choice words above that I underlined and bolded? They are qualifiers. Those words translate to “.. but we are not there yet!” You cannot just ask AI to do those function and expect them to do so in the place of a law clerk or a lawyer. They are currently there to assist them, which will make it quicker (and thus, less expensive) for the client.
As an experiment, I asked an AI program to try and do both of these services, to see if they can be done today, or how close we are. It could not do the job. It helped a little bit, but not nearly enough to ever make me decide that a computer program will put me out of business any time soon. And there is no guarantee that any AI program will ever be able to do the same job, or better, than a well-trained and experienced lawyer can do. The jury is still well out on that one. As of today, there are certain web-based medical programs that you can ask to give information about symptoms and illnesses, but make no mistake, it is not the same as getting advice, testing, or a diagnosis from a well-trained professional doctor. Much in the same vain in law, these programs may be a starting point for some clients, law clerks and lawyers to gather information, become well informed, and better prepare the matter, but it does not replace the role of the legal professional. We are likely many, many years away from having “The Hologram Doctor” in “Star Trek Voyager,” or “Data” in “Start Trek The Next Generation” to act for us as virtual professionals, in lieu of human beings (can you tell what some of my favourite shows are?).
As I said almost 5 years ago, I understand that what lawyers do seems easy, especially if you watch TV or movies. Others in your life may recommend that you not bother with a family law lawyer because you can use free, or almost-free legal services, or there are on-line tools to help you navigate the legal system.
If you decide to choose this route, please understand this – it is at your own peril. Most family law lawyers welcome and encourage a prospective client to use the internet to be an informed client; but relying on these resources to effectively be “your own family law lawyer” is still too risky. You may not know until it is too late that you have made a crucial mistake, by saying something you should not have, not saying something you needed to say, by not dotting the right “i’s” or by not crossing the right “t’s.”
There is tremendous value in what family law lawyers offer the public, and we must earn your trust, each and every time, to have you choose to purchase our services. I am thankful that we do not view many other professional services in this way – last I checked, there is still no “on duty electrician” or “virtual plumber” to sit down with you and take you step-by-step through complicated processes in those fields. There is also no “do-it-yourself” root canal video. Rather, we still need to hire the right professional to do the right job, at the right time, and for the right price. Family law lawyers are no different – if you need one, you still need to find the right one for you. If you do not, and you do it on your own, you will have saved some money now, but you are likely at risk of losing a lot more later on. That just my two cents.
Remember, every case is unique, just like you are. If you are facing real legal problems, you need the right legal solutions. Please contact Runco Law at 289-799-3080 or email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.