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Not Just Parliament with Ethics Issues, Watch Your Lawyer

06/20/2013 10:32 EDT | Updated 08/20/2013 05:12 EDT

Canadian news is mired in ethical debates these days, from questions over government officials' rising salaries, to charity speaking fees, travel expenses, and even substance abuse. What's the common thread in all this? Lots and lots of lawyers' fees!

These lawyers no doubt have their work cut out for them. But let's take a look at the lawyers working for the average person and their financial interests. It seems like I'm faced with legal documents a hundred times a year that are poorly prepared or just plain wrong. Those lawyers also have a moral obligation, not to their constituencies, but to their clients.

Case in point:

A recommendation was made to a client to add a spousal trust to his will. He called his lawyer and asked if he could come in to discuss having his will revised. The appointment was made and the client and his wife met with the lawyer to discuss the changes. Initially, upon hearing about the spousal trust the lawyer said that it wouldn't work because they lived in Alberta. Strike one!

The client called to tell me what the lawyer had said. I got the lawyer's name and number and gave him a call. When I got the lawyer on the line he said that he had spoken to two other lawyers in his firm and that they agreed that it wouldn't work in Alberta and that they really didn't see the benefit even if it did. Strike two!

Without going into details (if you're interested you can look up spousal trusts on the Internet) I can guarantee you that spousal trusts do work (and are available) in every jurisdiction in Canada and that this lawyer had no idea what he was talking about.

I called the client back and told him I had concerns about his lawyer but he felt that he had established a relationship and perhaps I could work through this with him. I told him I would, so I called the lawyer back and sent him a sample of what it should look like.

A few weeks later I got a draft copy of my client's will, including some cut and paste inserts from the sample I had sent him. What a mess. In the first part of the will it read "I leave the net value of my estate to my spouse for her own use absolutely." Two pages later it read "I leave the net value of my estate in trust for my spouse." Strike three!

Why couldn't the lawyer just accept the fact that he had no experience or training in this area of law and pass on the job?

At this point I asked my client to find out what the lawyer was going to charge him for his new will. I also suggested that he tell the lawyer that he was concerned about having to pay extra because of his lack of experience in this area. The lawyer agreed to do the will for a fixed rate and that there would be no additional charges, if I agreed to walk him through it.

When your lawyer agrees to do conveyancing, incorporation, divorce, wills and any other job you ask them to do, "probability" says they are not exactly experts in any one area of law. If that's the case you may find yourself paying an exorbitant cost for your legal work or you can end up with inferior or useless documents. Here are my top three recommendations for avoiding the worst pitfalls with lawyers:

1. Do your due diligence when you start working with either a new lawyer or a new aspect of your affairs with your lawyer. As them if they've had experience preparing the documents you're requesting. You're well within your rights to ask them for a sample of their previous work.

2. If you're dealing with a will, read it (ideally have someone else read it) as if you're the executor. Are the instructions clear and concise? Are you getting the results you want? Do this before you go to your lawyer's office to sign.

3. Ask for a quote. You don't want a nasty surprise when you go pay your bill.

Just like the ethics debates raging in parliament, lawyers have to learn to say no, plain and simple. If you aren't convinced they're the best person for the job, it's up to you to say NO because "probability" says they won't.