In Ontario, you need a lawyer if you're buying or selling real estate. But just because they're necessary, doesn't mean they're all equal. I'm going to provide a step-by-step guide to help make the process of choosing the right one a little less overwhelming.
Assess Your Needs
The first step is to understand what you're looking for. As a potential client (or a Realtor making a referral) you need to narrow down the issue you're looking to solve.
Do you need a lawyer to represent you in the purchase of a condominium? Are you looking for help preparing a land severance application? Need to review a commercial lease? Maybe you're selling a commercial plaza?
Real estate law is a funny niche where even within the practice area, some lawyers only handle certain types of files.
Once you've narrowed down the problem you need solved, you can begin searching for some options.
Search for Options
Google is a good first step - but you need to know how to use it properly. Don't just search "real estate lawyer near me". You're going to get a bunch of sponsored listings and usually they'll be from websites where you'll be hard pressed to find the actual lawyer's name.
Instead, be specific in your search. If you're looking for help on a farmland transaction, include that in your search - "farmland real estate transaction lawyer". The more specific your google search is, the more likely you're going to find relevant content and pages written by a lawyer with knowledge on the issue. This will always be a better lead than the generic "real estate lawyer" ad.
Law is an industry that's a little behind the times. What do I mean by this? Well, I know many great lawyers with ancient looking websites - and sometimes even no website at all.
This doesn't mean they're not great at what they do. So when you're gathering your list of lawyers to evaluate, make sure you ask around for referrals. Ask your Realtor, ask a colleague, ask your broker of record, and definitely ask other lawyers (we tend to know which other lawyers are good at their jobs).
Evaluating Credentials and Experience
Now that you've got a the name of a few lawyers, you need to start evaluating. Here's a few things you can do to assess your options:
- Read reviews: I'd skip any reviews posted directly on a lawyer's website, these are hand picked and always positive. Instead look at their google business listing and see what customers had to say. If there are negative reviews, look for context before crossing them off the list. Sometimes the complaints are illogical or come from people who were never even clients.
- Look for specialization: Back in the day, a lawyer was a jack of all trades. The modern approach, however, is specialization. Real estate law requires in-depth knowledge of many moving parts. Make sure you're hiring someone who specializes in real estate law and is dealing with these issues everyday. Don't hire a family lawyer who does a few real estate deals on the side.
- Schedule a consultation: See if you can get the lawyer on the phone for a few minutes. Assess whether they communicate clearly and takes the time to explain complex issues. This is a great indicator for a successful working relationship.
- Cost is an important consideration. While the more expensive option doesn't always mean better, the cheapest option can cost you more in the long run. It's important that you search for value, not just price. Know what you're getting, who you're getting, and the quality of representation that comes with it.
It's also important to understand how real estate lawyers price their services. Most residential transactions are based on a fixed fee. But even this can get confusing.
Real estate lawyers usually charge a legal fee, plus disbursements. Disbursements are the costs incurred during a real estate transaction, like search costs, registration fees, title insurance, and software fees. This means that the actual price you pay at the end will be more than the quoted legal fee you receive at the beginning.
Some lawyers are moving to an "all-in" fee structure that includes all your legal fees and disbursements into one neat, clean price - no surprises.
While one method of pricing isn't necessarily better than the other, it's important to understand the difference when comparing. When you receive a quote that says "plus disbursements", be sure to ask for a disbursement estimate. If the lawyer can't give you one, that's probably a red flag.
Know Your Real Estate Lawyer's Name
This is my favourite piece of advice to give when someone asks me how to choose a real estate lawyer. It's so simple, yet so good. "Know your real estate lawyer's name".
I talk to so many people who ended up using some online service or a big law firm, and they have no idea who their actual lawyer was. They communicated through assistants and clerks only, and had no actual communication with their "lawyer" at all.
Think about it this way, if a problem arises do you know who you're actually calling to get an answer? Better yet - can you get them on the phone? If the answer to either of these is no, keep looking for the right real estate lawyer.
- Identify your specific real estate needs to find the right lawyer for the job.
- Use detailed online searches and seek referrals from trusted sources.
- Evaluate lawyers' credentials, experience, and communication skills.
- Compare costs, considering both legal fees and disbursements, and focus on overall value.
- Ensure direct communication with the lawyer who'll handle your case.