“Should I bother to instruct a solicitor and if I do, how do I know if they’re any good?”

In the ever changing (and increasingly complex and confusing) business world, chances are, whether you like it or not, you will need to engage the services of a solicitor or a provider of legal services at some point in your life.

I decided to write this blog after having spoken with both business owners and individuals where it became apparent that, there really is no way in which you can know whether the solicitor that you have decided to instruct is any good or indeed, actually provides value for money (or is actually a fully qualified solicitor in some instances!) until you actually instruct them. This, together with the fact that it has been reported recently in the press that the owners of small to medium enterprises have actually spent more money by not using the services of a solicitor, than they would have actually saved by instructing one, gave me further cause to write this blog, as it is clear that the market perception of my profession causes a lot of confusion.

For the purposes of this blog, I am concentrating on the role of the solicitor, but you should note the role of barristers (please see the Bar Council Webiste http://www.barcouncil.org.uk/) and also that of qualified legal executives (details of which can be found on http://www.cilex.org.uk/) in relation to the provision of specialised legal services too, but they are further topics for another day.

So, how can you find out? I set out below issues to consider……

The Search

The Law Society

The Law Society website http://www.lawsociety.org.uk  has a “find a solicitor” button to click. If you know the name of the solicitor or the firm in which they work, you can find them via this tool. If you type in my name for example, you will see when I was admitted to the roll of solicitors and that my identification number is 230890. The number of my company is also identified as 515436. Anybody who is holding themselves out to be a solicitor of the Supreme Court of England and Wales will be on this list. If they are not, then you should investigate further. Once you have located their details, you can check the areas of law in which the practice and also the year in which they qualified. Their website and all correspondence received from them should also contain the wording “authorised and regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority”, together with their registration number.This is a valuable tool in determining whether they have the right level of expertise for your matter.

This may seem obvious, but if you need advice in relation to a lease of an office that you are thinking of occupying, then chances are you will type something along the lines of “commercial lease solicitors Shropshire / Birmingham etc” into Google, only to be presented with a whole list of law firms and other entities offering their services. Look at their website, look at their solicitors (referring to the Law Society website as per paragraph one). Does anybody seem to be suitable? Please note that the entries at the very top of the page are usually paid for advertisements. Google the name of that particular firm, have they received any good or bad press? Likewise with individuals. Look at their individual profile on their company website. Is their expertise right for you?

Linkedin and other social networking sites
There seem to be a number of ways in which you can find out further information about your solicitor and their reputation. Do they have a profile on one of these sites? Have they been endorsed? Have they been endorsed by anybody that you know?

“Word of Mouth”

To me, this is the best ever endorsement as to the standard of service a solicitor has provided. If they have been recommended to you by a business contact or friend, that should provide you with reassurance. I would however suggest that you still undertake the relevant research as set out in the preceding paragraphs.

Why use a solicitor?

The legal market has changed so that we can now have alternative business structures (“ABSs”) and, as a consequence, anybody (subject to approval from the Solicitors Regulation Authority with the granting of a licence by them see http://www.sra.org.uk  ) can set up a business entity and provide legal services. “Great”, you might think, “the market is a lot more competitive, which means lower costs for me!”  But what about the level of service and expertise required for your matter? I agree that there are good and bad solicitors, but the issue now is that with further entrants to legal services market there is going to be yet more confusion created with the use of the term “lawyer” and “legal team” now in the press.

I now write from personal experience. I recently had cause to deal with a lender’s in-house legal services provider in relation to a mortgage application that I had made. I was told that my “lawyer” would be in touch and that everything I needed would “arrive in the post”. Upon receiving my correspondence, together with the mortgage deed and other papers for signature, I noted that my “lawyer” was not a qualified solicitor, but an unqualified paralegal.

Lesson number 1 – a “lawyer” (a term favoured by the major entrants to the legal market) does not mean that the individual concerned is a fully qualified solicitor and capable of giving advice at the level required.

Lesson number 2 – I was told that, in relation to the mortgage deed, I should sign it in the presence of a witness (didn’t matter whom, apparently) and then pop it back in the post. I was given a “crib sheet” as to what to think about when signing a legal mortgage deed. When a solicitor deals with the signature of a mortgage deed, it is best practice that they advise upon it in a face to face meeting with you, and confirm that advice in writing and that you sign the mortgage deed in their presence and that they are a witness to your signature. in short, you should be left in no uncertain terms as to the ramifications of the document that by signing, you agree to be bound by.

At this point, you may be thinking “I still don’t see that there is an issue with this, as long as it saves me time and money”, but what if I were to tell you that the fees that this entity were charging (which in this case for the sake objectivity and fairness, were “thrown in” with the product I was buying), were the same or similar as that which you would have paid for instructing a local solicitor, and if such fees were not “thrown in”, who would you choose to instruct in relation to this issue? Another point to consider is this, what if the “consumer” of legal services was not me, but an elderly lady or gentleman or an individual with learning difficulties? How would their needs be protected with this process? The only way that such entities can keep your costs down is to use unqualified staff, not solicitors which in turn will affect the quality of service and advice given. This new process of using unqualified legal staff is being rolled out by large corporate entities in all areas of law.

The example I use is a simplistic one, but again apply the commoditisation of legal services to more complex scenarios and I would hope that you are beginning to see my point. I would therefore conclude that “You get what you pay for” is a statement that is as true today as it has ever been. As I have already stated,I am aware that there are good and bad solicitors, but I hope that the advice in this blog will asisst you in finding a good one!

Copyright Street & Company 2013. All rights reserved. All content is merely the opinion of the writer.