The idiot's guide to choosing a lawyer
As it’s Friday, and I’ve had a busy week, I have decided to write a post that isn’t too taxing for me (or you) as an easy segue into the weekend. If you are a lawyer, I apologise for its likely uselessness. Nor will it be much use to people who have to use lawyers all the time (I commiserate with you wholeheartedly). But it might be helpful to people who don’t ever think about lawyers and really don’t have the first idea how to find one, or what to ask them, if and when they do.
In the first place, I would do your best to sort out your issue without going to a lawyer. Getting a professional in costs money, sometimes a LOT of money, so it’s always worth seeking out an alternative. Also bear in mind that as soon as the person or organisation with whom you have a dispute gets a letter from a lawyer they will move from just being a bit annoyed or annoying into full battle-ready, driving-you-up-the-wall mode.
I am sure, on the basis of no evidence whatsoever, that a good many of people’s problems and disputes come about because they don’t talk to each other. Officials get all jobsworthy and refuse to listen; neighbours don’t consult, or even inform those on the other side of the fence before they chop down trees or have a wild party; bosses don’t talk to their staff about their performance or time-keeping issues. Before you know it, lawyers are slapping writs all over the place and the parties involved won’t even say ‘hello’ to each other.
If you don’t fancy having a chat over coffee with your nemesis then take a trip to your local Citizens Advice Bureau (assuming there still is one where you live) or have a look on the web for some information about your rights and where you stand – try Directgov, Citizens Advice, Advicenow, Your Rights, Which? and the advice guide on the Justice Gap website. Some of these sites also provide free, downloadable standard letters (for example, appealing parking fines or returning faulty goods to a store), so you shouldn’t need a professional at all.
Aha, you are thinking, but I am trying to get divorced or move house, surely I need a lawyer for that? Not necessarily. Providing your circumstances are fairly straightforward there is no reason why you can’t do these things by yourself with a bit of guidance. Search Amazon for a DIY conveyancing book and you’ll be surprised at how many there are to choose from. There are even two or three DIY divorce books and loads of DIY will kits.
Mind you, these are probably not for the faint hearted, and certainly not for the time poor. So if you want to embrace DIY law but with a fair amount of handholding and with some time over for eating and sleeping you could opt for the online solution, where you are taken step by step through a process ending up with a personalised legal document that can, if you choose, be reviewed by a lawyer. The major benefit of this ‘made-to-measure’ legal document is there’s normally a fixed fee and you can do it whenever or wherever you want, even in the bath at midnight (just make sure the webcam is off).
However, there are some things you are just going to have to get a lawyer to help you with. If you’ve been divorced twice, have children from three marriages, two homes, a gite in France and serious cash in the bank then a DIY or online will probably isn’t going to be right for you. Finding a lawyer is easy. You could use Yellow Pages (does anyone any more?), or the Law Society website, or one of the increasing number of ‘find a lawyer’ tools on the internet. Getting the right one might be a bit more of a challenge.
It sounds obvious, but do check they are the right kind of lawyer. There are probably fewer ‘jack-of-all-trade’ lawyers around, but even so, it doesn’t hurt to ask whether they do conveyancing all the time or whether they just read the chapter in the manual. And make sure you like them: nothing worse than going through something as stressful as a divorce or house move with someone you wouldn’t want to sit next to in class. On the other hand, don''t let your friend, who's a family lawyer, tackle your employment dispute, even if it's on mate's rates.
Once you’ve chosen the person you are going to entrust your life to (well, almost), find out exactly what’s going to happen and what they are going to do. Ask about your options for sorting your problem, whether you’ll have to go to court, how long they think it will take and the chances of getting the result you want. Also ask if, having decided you like this person, they are actually going to handle your case or are they going to farm it out to a someone in a back room they don't let into the front office during daylight hours.
Your lawyer should be able to give you an estimate of the cost of your case and you should ask them how they will keep you updated as costs rack up. They should also be able to help you decide how to fund your case. You probably won’t be able to get legal aid unless you are so poor you live in a shoe, but there may well be options, such as union membership, legal insurance or no win-no fee agreements, that mean you don’t have to rob a bank (if they advise you to do this, don’t retain them).
Last, but definitely not least, find out how to complain if you aren’t happy with their service. Remember, you are paying the lawyer, not the other way around. You have every right to complain if they don’t listen to you or keep you informed. And don’t be afraid to use it.