Considerations when choosing a solicitor

When it comes to choosing a solicitor, two of the biggest concerns that people have is what sort of service they are going to receive and what amount they are going to be charged by them.

Why it is always better to meet your solicitor

Firstly, it is always better to meet your solicitor. Some in the legal profession believe this to be an old fashioned approach and feel that everything should be streamlined to prove efficiency. They will therefore have people phoning their offices pressing option buttons, or have their calls dealt with by a foreign call centre. They will send e-Christmas cards rather than real Christmas cards.

Many firms have embraced the idea that the less contact that they have with the clients the better. It saves them time and they believe it saves them money. The fact that they may give a poorer service does not seem to bother them too much.

However, it tends to be the case that when efficiency is said to have been improved, service and standards fall. A couple of recent cases have shown this to be the case.

In a case in November 2013 in Leeds County Court the court had to decide whether a firm of solicitors had been negligent in dealing with a personal injury claim for a miner. The firm dealt with thousands of claims and dealt with them by way of letters and questionnaires which the clients had to fill in. The judge in the case found against the solicitors, saying:

“It was reasonably foreseeable that a client such as the claimant might not fully understand how the system operated and what claims he was actually entitled to make”.

He went onto say that:

“The system set up by the defendants (the solicitors) involving as it did, the extensive use of questionnaires and standardised letters with very little personal contact with the client enabled them to deal with a very high number of claims at limited cost”.

The judge said a solicitor should take clients instructions in a three stage process:

“First, the solicitor must obtain information from the client about the nature of the claim and the facts which surround it. Second, once the solicitor has all the relevant information he or she can then give the client advice. The third stage is when the client tells the solicitor what action he or she would like him to take on the basis of the advice he has received”.

He added:

“In this case the information was contained in the questionnaire, the advice was in the initial letters and the instructions were by tick-box form”.

The judge found against the solicitors because of their way of dealing with everything by using questionnaires, e-mails etc instead of meeting the client.

This case and the comments by the judge illustrate just how important it is for solicitors to actually meet their clients on at least one occasion. Actually meeting the client and speaking face to face allows solicitors to get a better view of the case and to give better advice, which therefore increases the chances of winning and the amount of money that the client is likely to receive.

Another recent case involved a person who injured themselves tripping over, with the trip caused by a defective pavement. A date for the trial was set, and on the day of the trial the judge, the lawyers and the clients went to view the scene of the accident to see how bad it was.

The council, who were the defendants in the case, had the day before tarmaced over the defective pavement so that the evidence had disappeared. Amazingly, the solicitors who acted for the person who was injured did not take any photographs or measurements shortly after the accident. The case was subsequently lost by the person bringing the claim, but it may have been won had the photographs and measurements been taken speedily.

In every tripping case the solicitors acting for the injured party should go and visit the scene, view the scene, advise whether they think there is a claim, take photographs of the scene with rulers and do all the correct measurements. A good solicitor should try and gather any other evidence increasing the chances of success of the claim.

Solicitors should not leave it to the clients to have to do this because clients are not trained lawyers, are not trained photographers and that is what they employ lawyers to do.

The person giving the lecture at a recent course said that lawyers should stop doing the work themselves and leave it to the clients to do and that was the only way that the lawyers could make money! That is clearly not the attitude you should expect from a solicitor, and if you instruct a firm of solicitors to do a case you should expect them to do most of the work for you.

Of course, solicitors cannot attend the medical appointment for you and cannot tell you what to say. But they should meet with you and ask you questions and be able to see by the expression on your face what you understand and what you don’t understand. If you don’t understand anything then they can try and explain it another way. This approach rarely works when the person is on the other end of the telephone.

In accident cases your solicitor should come and visit you if you want, and should certainly visit the scene of the accident. In most other cases you would be expected to go to your solicitors’ offices unless you have some sort of disability. This personal service allows your solicitors to give you the best possible advice, and you shouldn’t expect them to charge you any more than solicitors who do not meet you.

Fixed fees for legal work

A second big concern people have when choosing to use the services of a solicitor is the issue of money. Many people are frightened of using solicitors because they do not know what a solicitor is going to charge. There is a common fear that the solicitor is going to do the work and they are going to be presented with a bill for an enormous amount of money at the end of it which they cannot afford and which they have not budgeted for. This is quite understandable.

The normal way that solicitors charge for a bill is to charge for the time that they spend doing a job. They charge at an hourly rate and they charge by the letter, by the phone call and by the e-mail. That makes sense to lawyers but to non-lawyers it does not make sense. After all, if you use a garage to repair your car they give you an estimate before the job is done. Why should lawyers be any different?

The reason is that in some instances it is easy to say how long will be spent on a matter. It is easy to say how long will be spent on writing a will, but far more difficult to say how long will be spent handling a divorce.

To help clients a good solicitors firm should, wherever possible, have a fixed fee for all the work they do so that clients and potential clients can see how much they will be charged by simply looking at the firm’s website. So, a solicitor should generally be able to offer fixed fees for conveyancing work, for straightforward wills, for probate work and for Powers of Attorney. Solicitors should also be able to offer fixed fees for most of the divorce work they do as well, although not everything - if there is a dispute over custody or money it is impossible to predict with any certainty how much it is going to cost. In this situation, the next best option is to send out monthly bills.

It should be noted that fixed fees cannot be used in all cases for example for millionaires with trusts and properties abroad, but most people should be able to know how much they are going to have to pay before they instruct their solicitor or even before they come to them.

Again, with “no win no fee” agreements now that the government says that solicitors should take part of the damages from the client to fund them, your solicitor should tell you exactly how much they are going to deduct.

If clients know what they are going to have to pay, they can be confident in instructing their solicitors and it reduces arguments at the end of the case. It also should take away some of the fear of going to see a solicitor!

Ultimately, when choosing a solicitor you should look for a firm which offers competitive and transparent fees as well as a high quality, personal service provided by fully qualified legal staff who will meet you face to face rather than just dealing with your case through letters, emails and questionnaires. As this article has explained, it can make a real difference to your case.