Sunday 2 January 2011

9 ways to choose a lawyer

Some thoughts on how to choose who should handle your legal work for you - mainly focused on residential conveyancing, but of  relevance to other fields as well:

1. Listen to personal recommendations: If you are moving home, speak to friends and family who have moved home recently. If you have a commercial transaction or need other business-related legal help, speak to your accountant. If you are seeking a divorce lawyer, speak to someone who has been though the ordeal.  Who would they recommend you use - or recommend you avoid?

2. Don’t be bullied into a particular choice.
In residential transactions, many corporate estate agents are incentivised to refer to particular firms in order to be paid referral fees - sometimes, their staff are disciplined if they do not make successful referrals. However, this is benefiting only the agent, not the buyer or the seller. Indeed, where a buyer is referred to an inefficient firm for a referral fee, the agent is not acting in his client's (the seller's) interests at all - the agent has allowed his own interests to prevent him fulfilling his duty to his own client.  If an agent suggests using a particular firm, ask, "Why?" then "Do you get a referral fee if we use them?"  Similarly, in other legal work, you have the right to choose your own lawyer on the basis of what suits you best.

3.  Buy local, where you can
. For a house move, it is probably sensible to use someone local to your destination: a genuinely local conveyancer will know so much more about your area than a so called “national” firm, simply as a result of being involved in their local community. For other legal work, choose a firm local to you - either at home or at work - so that it is convenient to meet when necessary - this is particularly important for family work, where face-to-face discussions minimise the stress and complexity of what is an already over-stressful time

4. Let's talk!   Linked to this is the question of communication: how and how often do you want to be contacted with progress or non-progress reports? Inevitably, some legal work takes longer than other work, and a daily report of "No response yet" in a court action or negotiation would be over the top, but you might well want a weekly email report.  Or you might want instead to be copied in on correspondence, so that you can see what is happening. In a matter with clearly defined milestones - exchange of contracts and completion in a house move, for instance - you might want a phone call to confirm the position, or you may prefer a text, with more detailed information to follow, if needed. Make sure that the lawyer you plan to choose will (within reason) fit in with the way you want to communicate

5. Do online research. Searching for “Conveyancing Tenterden”, for instance, will throw up various conveyancers who are - or pretend to be - in the relevant area. Visit their websites; check that they are, indeed, where they claim to be, and get a feel for how they work and what they offer. The same applies to other fields of law. It is usually the case that lawyers who are genuinely good in their chosen field(s) will make a lot of relevant information available for free on their websites. Be wary of those who claim expertise but fail to demonstrate it

6. Back up that research by phoning - better still, visiting - the firm(s) you have in mind. You can find out a lot about how approachable and client-focussed a firm is by asking a few relevant questions over the phone - still more by how you are treated on an unannounced visit to their office. If they treat you as a nuisance (or worse), you have been warned!

7. Don't choose minimum cost, but maximum value. If you are not sure you can tell the difference, rely on item 1 above: those who have experienced the process can tell you whether they found the service they received good or bad value for money. As a poorer alternative, check to see if the firm you are considering publishes testimonials from satisfied clients - and, ideally, offers a guarantee of satisfaction

8. Talking of cost ...   The work you want done may be suitable for an agreed fixed fee, instead of being charged on the basis of the time spent by the lawyer - there is always the suspicion that this rewards inefficiency. In effect, most residential conveyancers charge a fixed fee, in that they should not exceed their original estimate without clearing it with you - but watch out for hidden extras: get confirmation that the estimated fee covers all the expected work, and that you will not be charged extra for (say) completing a transaction less than two weeks after exchange of contracts, as some conveyancers do

9 Choose a small firm. I am biased, but I feel that most larger firms treat individual clients as of relatively low value, on the basis that there are plenty of other fish in the sea: the loss of one or two clients will not seriously impact on them. A small firm - or sole practitioner - knows he or she must cherish every client; not only are those clients of relatively higher individual value, but they will talk about their experience: see item 1 above. Further, the staff in a small firm will be more of a family or group of friends than in a large firm, where they are "personnel" or "human resources"; a small firm is therefore likely to be friendlier - amongst themselves and towords outsiders (We keep a supply of biscuits for our postmen ...)   Finally, it is such a struggle for a small firm to fight its way through the regulatory and other processes designed by large organisations with large organisations in mind and no experience of being part of a small organisation, that the small guys must have a very good reason for not joining a big firm and letting it take the strain - that reason is enthusiasm: they tend to love what they do and constanty strive to excel at it.

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