How do you choose your lawyer? What are you looking for? And how do you know that you are getting good value for money? In his role as Managing Partner of AV, Rod Berry receives calls every week from people looking for legal help, often having had less than ideal experiences elsewhere. What questions do they ask, and more importantly, are they asking the right question?
Last Christmas I caught up with my cousin’s husband, who practices law in London, specialising on money laundering and major fraud cases. “How much do you charge your clients, per hour?”, I asked him casually one sunny Sydney afternoon. “850 pounds per hour,” he replied just as casually. I was incredulous. “That’s $1700 per hour! How can clients afford that?” He laughed, “By the time they come to see me, it really doesn’t matter how much I charge. They are in big trouble, and I am one of only 4 or 5 lawyers in the UK who can help them.”
I start this discussion with hourly rates because it is one of the most common questions I get asked. “What are your hourly rates?” It is a question which frustrates me, because it comes with an assumption that in all other respects the service will be the same whichever firm a person uses, and that the only distinguishing feature is cost. That is simply not the case. An advanced lawyer, who charges $650 per hour, may be able to deal with a seemingly complex issue in an hour or two, drawing upon experience and wisdom evolved over years of practice. A less experienced lawyer, who charges only $300 per hour, may muddle their way through the same matter over many more hours, still not provide good advice, and end up costing two or three times as much.
The most important question to ask is, “Have you ever had a case like this before?”
If their answer is “Yes”, then ask them how they solved the issue. Don’t be the guinea pig for your lawyer. Be his or her fifth, or tenth or preferably fiftieth case on the issue. If you engage a new lawyer, it should become apparent fairly quickly if they know what they are doing. They will be able to respond confidently to your questions, and provide you with a clear direction and strategy for your matter.
Equally important is being clear on outcomes. Tell your lawyer what you want to achieve at the end of the process. Is that outcome even possible? If not, what is realistic? Knowing how things are likely to pan out will help a client make good decisions from the very outset regarding how much they are prepared to invest in the legal process, or if some other non-legal avenue may be better in the circumstances. There are many situations where lawyers cannot provide certainty, no matter how clients crave it. Beware of the lawyer who overpromises.
Like many things in life, some personality types will be a better fit for you than others. Some clients are extremely risk averse. They will want a lawyer who will advise conservatively, and they won’t make any major business decisions without consulting their lawyer. Other clients are prepared to take educated risks, and will prefer lawyers who are prepared to argue novel points, and push where other lawyers might throw in the towel. Good questions to ask include, “What is the most likely outcome” and “What risks do you perceive in pursuing this matter?” Although many lawyers will refuse to answer this question, it is reasonable for you to ask, “What would you do if you were me?” Some lawyers will focus on the negatives, others will see opportunity. Know yourself, and you will have a clearer sense of who might be a good fit.
Another consideration I try to highlight in these conversations is the question of values. Ideally, you should try to find a firm that shares similar values to you, because there will likely be the recurring need for legal help over a person’s life. Whether it is buying or selling a house, drafting a will, administering an estate, advising on a family law dispute or helping with business issues, if you find a firm that you feel comfortable with, you will be able to return to them over and over again, confident that you have someone in your corner to help you through difficult times.