Many people have misconceptions about hiring a lawyer. They  think hiring a lawyer will cost them more than they can afford. They may feel intimidated by the legal process, and uncertain about how to proceed. Their fear limits their ability to be good consumers. Many people spend more time at the Future Shop selecting a new TV than deciding upon a lawyer.

Your  first question should be  “do I need a lawyer?”  The biggest mistake people make is not getting the necessary facts needed to make a good decision. Avoid free consultations. These are generally selling opportunities, and the advice received will be geared towards converting you into a client. Your goal in consulting a lawyer is to determine your rights, obligations and possible solutions.

Hiring a lawyer does not have to be scary. If you have a legal problem, you may not need a lawyer. But that decision is a lot easier to make if you consult a lawyer first. It is often less expensive and more effective to act quickly. There are many options, depending on your situation, the exact kind of legal service you need, and your budget.

Be frank with your lawyer about what you can afford, and how you can pay. A lawyer will tailor their services to your budget. Many lawyers will accept not only retainers, but also payment plans. For example, a monthly payment made by cheque or credit card towards your account.

Some clients take out a bank loan, or cash an RRSP to pay for their legal work. Once the sale or transfer of the family assets is complete, they can then put their finances in order. Others borrow from friends or family. In cases where parents have not been able to exercise parenting time with their children, grandparents sometimes contribute.

Overview of Payment Options


A retainer is a lump sum amount of money provided in advance, for work to be completed on the client’s case. This is the traditional method for paying a lawyer, and is normally required for complex, lengthy, or trial cases.

In the event that you do not use up all the funds provided for the retainer, it is returned at the end of the case. This is not the same as a fee estimate or flat fee costing for your case. It is simply a deposit. The size of the retainer depends on the urgency of your case.  Cases where a lawyer will have to act quickly will necessitate a higher retainer.

Fee For Service/Flat Fee

With a fee for service arrangement, you and your lawyer arrange a determined fee for a specific service. For example, you and your lawyer may negotiate a flat fee charge for a co-habitation agreement, separation agreement, a set number of mediation sessions, or an appearance in court.

The benefit of this system is that it provides you with certainty about what hiring a lawyer will cost. Many criminal matters are also are available for a flat fee.

Contingency Fee

In personal injury cases (such as ICBC), lawyers typically do not charge their clients for their representation up front, or as the case progresses. Instead, the lawyer receives a percentage of the final financial settlement awarded to the client at the end of their case. Often, the lawyer will receive nothing if you loose your case. That is a strong motivator for the lawyer to win your case.

Hourly Fee

Your lawyer charges for their time on a per-hour basis. Then, the lawyer bills you for time spent on your case. This accounts for things like court appearances, preparation for court, drafting of legal documents (Notice of Motions, Affidavits etc.), meetings, telephone calls, and email communication.

Unbundled Services

Normally a lawyer will represent you on all aspects of your legal matters. Unbundled services are where you just pay your lawyer for the specific services you need. This is normally available for a flat fee, or on an hourly rate. For example, if you are representing yourself, you may need specific help complying with the rules of court, drafting pleadings properly, or with legal research. This support can be provided and tailored to your specific needs.

There are many options for what a lawyer can do for you, depending on what you need and your budget. Talk with your lawyer up front, and it will take some of the stress out of your legal situation.


Jayne Embree M.A.

Divorce Coach and Child Specialist

Jayne holds a Masters in Psychology and is a highly experienced Divorce Coach and Child Specialist. Currently on sabbatical, Jayne is conducting research in the area of family dynamics and parental conflict.  


Areas of Practice: Family law including separation, divorce, mediation, arbitration, child & spousal support, support variations, guardianship, parenting time, access, property division and more. Victoria BC