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The Caterer

Choosing a solicitor

27 April 2005
Choosing a solicitor

In today's litigious society can you afford to be caught out? Having a solicitor on hand could be a shrewd move.

If you are looking for a solicitor there are several sources to pursue. Top must come personal recommendations. Other sources, such as your accountant, may have good contacts with the legal profession.

Failing that, your best bet is to consult one of the two "professional bibles" at your local library - The Legal 500 and Chambers and Partners Directory. Both are useful, as they are a review of lawyers for clients. They both list firms by region and their specialities, together with firms' own editorial about themselves. Also listed is a run-down on experience and fees as well as partners' names and firms' addresses. If you prefer, you could try contacting the Law Society for names of firms with known expertise in given areas.

Make a shortlist of the firms that seem appropriate for your needs. Then test each firm to see how it differentiates itself from others. If this seems satisfactory, then you must ascertain if that firm and the solicitor who will look after you is right for your needs.

Today, every field of activity is specialist. So ask about experience in the relevant fields in which you are likely to need help, and look for evidence of knowledge. Has the firm or solicitor written any booklets or articles on subjects of relevance to your business? Are the booklets very glossy? If they are, be in no doubt that somewhere along the line you'll be paying for this.

You should also find out how many times they have dealt with the sorts of legal problems that you face, and ask if the practice gives the home or mobile numbers of your "contact" solicitor. Note who will be your contact - will you have one name or several? Often the best practices have one partner in charge of managing the relationship but, where necessary, he brings in the relevant expertise.

Before you engage a solicitor all those involved should meet - ideally on your home territory. Ask if the solicitor charges for the first visit. And find out whether, after the first visit, they charge for travelling time or just for the work carried out.

At the first meeting you should expect the solicitor to discuss fees. If he doesn't, you should raise the subject. You should cover the total budget you are prepared to allow for legal expenses; what you can do to minimise your bill; how much detail you want when receiving bills; how much is charged per hour; and whether the firm will invoice you at your convenience - weekly, monthly or quarterly. It is worth noting that, as a minimum, the Law Society's written professional standards require solicitors to give clients the best information possible on likely costs.

At the same time as agreeing fees, give the solicitor all the information you can about your business and any potential problems.

When you have decided upon the firm you want, you need to make clear each of the parties' obligations and responsibilities; and so it is a good idea to ask your solicitor to write a letter of engagement. This should cover what is expected of the client and solicitor; who the main contact for both parties is; the budget limits that the practice must not exceed; and also the complaints procedure - which, by the way, the Law Society requires should be mentioned before the working relationship commences.

Documents are the stuff of life as far as the law is concerned, so ask your staff to keep all documentation - letters, memos, minutes of meetings, etc - filed properly. Check that when you copy contracts, you also copy the reverse - the terms are often printed overleaf.

If you have a grievance with your solicitor, you should in the first instance approach your solicitor. Like any other relationship, problems due to poor communication might be solved with a simple chat. However, if you still get no satisfaction, you can approach the Consumer Complaints Service (CCS) for help.

The CCS (formerly the Office for the Supervision of Solicitors) deals with complaints from consumers who think the service they get from their solicitor is not good enough. The aim is to help agree a way forward, but the CCS can also investigate complaints more formally and order solicitors to put things right, sometimes by the payment of compensation. The CCS also provides the main helpline service for any member of the public, whether they wish to enquire about something a solicitor has done, make a complaint about their solicitor's service, or report a solicitor for misconduct.

If you are not satisfied with the result of the CCS's investigation or you suspect that your complaint was not given proper attention, your last resort is to go to the Legal Services Ombudsman.

The ombudsman is appointed to oversee the handling of complaints against solicitors, barristers and licensed conveyancers. The service is free and must be called upon within three months of the CCS informing you of its decision. If the ombudsman agrees that you have a valid complaint, he or she can make a variety of recommendations to the CCS, from a re-examination of your complaint to the repayment of your costs plus compensation. The ombudsman can only act if no appeal is being made or could still be made against the decision of the CCS, or if the case has not been taken to court or a tribunal. Although the ombudsman's recommendations are not binding, they are backed up by a stiff publicity sanction which requires those who do not comply to publicise their reasons for non-compliance at their expense.

The Law Society, Law Society Hall, 113 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1PL. Tel: 020 7242 1222. Website: www.lawsoc.org.uk.

Consumer Complaints Service. Tel: 0845 608 6565. Website: www.lawsoc.org.uk

The Legal Services Ombudsman, 3rd Floor, Sunlight House, Quay Street, Manchester M3 3JZ. Tel: 0161-839 7262. Website: www.olso.org.

The Legal 500: www.legal500.com.

Chambers and Partners Directory: www.chambersandpartners.com.

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