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Hiring Local Counsel: Pig in a Poke

Sometimes a commercial deal has “foreign law” aspects that necessitate the hiring of  local legal counsel (aka “special counsel” meaning a limited mandate) in a jurisdiction where you don’t have a go-to firm. For example, an Ontario transaction might involve important assets or employees in Alberta or Nevada. Or, vice versa.

What do you do?  Hiring the wrong firm can produce terrible results: serious delay, skyrocketing costs, regulatory snafus, inter-firm battles, and more. If you’re the guy that hired that problematic attorney, the failure lies at your door.

So, this is the list of main factors I use in hiring a local counsel:

1.  do I know (respect & trust) someone (client or another lawyer not qualified in the area) who might know someone? Even a loose connection via alumni is something. It’s usually better to hire on referral from a trusted source. I don’t ask for references, as I have no practical way to verify bona fides;

2.  do I need a big firm or a small firm? Can my work be handled by a solo or small firm as well or better than a mega-firm? Should I hire a firm or a lawyer? I prefer to hire a particular lawyer, and a lawyer who is particular;

3.  is the lawyer qualified to do my tasks? I usually rely on websites and directories when I’m going in cold, and I favour those who represent that they specialize. I’m very wary of counsel who say they do it all, like legal Jacks of All Trades. I don’t want to be told that they’re in a divorce trial the day before closing (unless it’s their divorce!). I’m also wary of rating and review sites, because they are often manipulated by those who are better promoters than lawyers;

4.  does the attorney have a straightforward and sensible approach (assuming the lawyer actually wrote the commentary or at least influenced it) or, are they brash & braggadoccio, pretending to be the best/baddest lawyer in town? I don’t need that;

5.  will they be accessible and responsive to me? I will test this by an email, my preferred mode, and/or a phone call – do they respond quickly and professionally? I look for a same day response, or sooner, or a note to say why not. Most attorneys are connected to the office at all times, except wilderness outings, and then they send out messages as to that effect. I don’t need to find a new BFF, but I do want someone I can instruct, trust and is pleasant to deal with;

6.  do they talk about fees, costs, timing, delegation and unique legal issues in their jurisdiction at the outset? If so, it tends to show they know what they’re doing and are confident of their worth. My deal client and I don’t want surprises, and great service and expert advice don’t usually come from the discount provider;

7.  I test further by asking the local candidate to do some first round public office searches – this reveals much about their modus operandi, expertise and efficiency. If this simple and routine step is mishandled, it’s not too late to ask for the bill and find a replacement.

And, I pay attention to red flags, like an unexplained bottleneck or hiatus – no one is perfect, stuff happens. I just want my local counsel to be upfront with me.

Well, those are ways I try to avoid local counsel fiascos, I hope this note is useful to you. I welcome your comments and suggestions, and also I welcome your enquiries for acting as your local Toronto GTA counsel ( Cheers!


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