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Category Archives: Getting a Lawyer

How to get the most out of your lawyer

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wooden gavel and book on wooden table, on brown background

There has been a bit of a stink in the legal press recently. The world’s largest law firm (in fact, the US arm of the firm I used to work at) was caught out big time in inflating its invoices. The firm’s lawyers were trading casual emails about the case and joking about how the invoice was running way over budget while another lawyer emailed “churn that bill, baby!”

One of the emails stated “Now Vince has random people working full time on random research projects in standard ‘churn that bill, baby!’ mode. That bill shall know no limits.”

Now this may seem despicable to many of you (indeed it is to me) but this “padding” of bills does happen so you need to know what to do to ensure that you get a fair fee and be certain that you aren’t being overcharged:

  1. Always ask for a fixed fee. Your lawyer should be happy to provide a fixed fee for work that is within his control (such as drafting standard terms where no third party is involved). Where third parties are involved (for example in a negotiation), they will be reluctant to fix a fee as they don’t know how much time it is going to take to successfully negotiate the contract because so much depends on the reasonableness and ability of the lawyer or client on the other side.
  2. Understand where the fixed fee ends and when the hourly rates start.
  3. Check very carefully what the firm charges extra for – telephone calls, faxes, photocopying, couriers, lunches? When I was working in-house, I was amazed to see that I was being billed for my lawyers taking me out to lunch… This should all be set out clearly in your Engagement Letter so make sure you understand how much they are charging for such things and if you feel that is unreasonable, question them.

If you can’t get a fixed fee, keep in mind the following advice:

  1. Check how the hourly rate is billed. Some law firms charge on “units” of a minimum of 10 minutes – so what this means is that if a lawyer spends one minute on your matter, they bill you for 10 minutes. Doesn’t seem fair does it, but that is what a lot of law firms do. Ask for units of 5 minutes or even better ask the firm to agree to just invoice you for the actual time spent to the nearest minute.
  2. Ask for a detailed billing guide to be sent with every invoice and spend the time to go through the billing guide with a fine toothcomb and if you see something that you feel is unreasonable (such as being charged £200 for voicemails left for you while you were out to lunch), take this up with your lawyer or relationship partner and explain that you want to see more efficiency – you can guarantee that the lawyers will be more careful and reserved over their time recording on your matter in the future.
  3. Request an update of work in progress (ie the work that has been carried out but not yet invoiced) every week or month together with a detailed guide to that work. This will help you budget and if you feel your invoice is running away with you, you can contact your solicitor to reign him in a bit or discuss where efficiencies can be made.
  4. Check that you aren’t going to be expected to pay for overtime at higher rates, taxis home or dinners when working late.
  5. When you don’t have a fixed fee, time is money. So don’t spend 20 minutes chatting to your lawyer about his holiday as they are probably billing you for that time.
  6. Pick up the phone – a lot of time is wasted by trading email messages that don’t really get you anywhere. Beware that a lot of junior lawyers will hide behind the email.
  7. Be concise and precise in your instructions to your lawyer and confirm them in writing, so that there is no doubt as to what you want them (or don’t want them) to do.
  8. If you have the time to do it (or can delegate to a member of your staff), volunteer to do administrative work to avoid your lawyer doing work that doesn’t require his specialist knowledge – no point paying £250+ an hour for someone to input factual details into schedules of an agreement.

On the other side of the coin, many lawyers will be willing to go that extra mile for you if you treat them nice… So be a good client – yes it is a two way relationship and chances are that if your lawyer feels warm and mushy about you, they are going to put your work to the top of the pile, give you special rates and let you call them about any issues you have without charging you for it. You can be a good client by:

  1. Paying your invoices on time and without being chased.
  2. Not setting false deadlines or exaggerating how urgent something is – if you say something is urgent and your lawyer stays up all night to draft something for you and then you take two weeks doing what you need to do to the document, don’t be surprised if the next time you say something is urgent, your lawyer isn’t quite so enthusiastic to make a personal sacrifice for you.
  3. Appreciating your lawyer when they have gone beyond the call of duty for you. Thank them, sing their praises to your peer group, provide them with an enthusiastic testimonial, send them some flowers (or my particular favourite a Fortnum and Mason hamper…), invite them on your next golf day – and they will not think twice about making more sacrifices when you need them.
  4. Being open and honest with your lawyer and not holding back on providing them with information that they need to do their job properly.
  5. Being pleasant, courteous and treating them as person and not a commodity – a one minute chat about their kids isn’t going to add anything to the bill and will do wonders in establishing a relationship.

Finally, find out what services your lawyers offer free of charge – do they provide free seminars, a newsletter, legal bulletins, a library service – all of which will help you to protect your small business and potentially save a lot of time and money in avoiding expensive mistakes. Speaking of which, I am running a series of free webinars on topics such as “all you need to know about taking on your first freelancer” and “the legalities of running an e-commerce store”.

Click here to see more details and sign up!

Copyright © Suzanne Dibble 2013

Disclaimer

Although the concepts in this article have global application, the information contained in the article is based on English law only and is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to amount to advice on which reliance should be placed. Suzanne disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on such information. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the above contents.

Part 1 – How to find a Grrrreat lawyer

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Uk Law And British Justice Concept

Finding a great lawyer to advise your small business is not easy. If you have found a great one, be nice to them and hang onto them at all costs… 🙂

But if you don’t have a great lawyer, how do you go about finding one? Read on to find out how.

1.       Recommendation

As your relationship with your business lawyer is a very personal one, most people still prefer to go with personal recommendations. Indeed nearly all of my work comes from word of mouth recommendations. So as a first port of call, ask your business acquaintances if they have any recommendations. If they don’t know anyone or you don’t have any business mates, then post a request to a Facebook group, Twitter, Linked In or a relevant forum. Before long you will have a list of suggestions of lawyers who are all tried and tested.

2.       Websites that list lawyers

There are a plethora of websites that list lawyers but as, typically, they don’t vet lawyers in any way and are charging a referral fee from the lawyer, I would advise treating these sites with caution.

3.       Legal directories

There are also legal directories that rank law firms and comment on individual lawyers within those firms but unless you are in a position to afford top law firm prices (which typically as a small business you are not), these are of limited use.

4.       Google search

Yes, our best friend Google can help you out with this one. If location is important to you, then you can google “small business lawyer” followed by the name of your town and that should provide search results for all your local lawyers. However with technology as it is these days, geography does not need to be an issue at all – my clients are from all over the country and the fact that I have not met them even once has not at all hindered the relationship or the quality of the work/service. If you have a particular specialism you need help with, you can google that and the search should provide you with a shortlist.

So once you have your shortlist, here are some questions to ask yourself to determine whether anyone on your shortlist is a “great” lawyer. Try to get a feel for the answer to these questions from the lawyer’s website (check out their testimonials and what these focus on) and then arrange a free initial consultation (either in person or over the phone) with the lawyer where you can sound him or her out on the following (note, obviously you don’t ask these as your actual questions…!)

  1. Do they really understand your business?
  2. Do they actually really give a monkeys whether your business succeeds or not?
  3. Do they explain things in language you can understand without using legal jargon?
  4. Do they treat you as an equal rather than talking down to you in a condescending manner?
  5. Will they be happy to talk to you to give you quick advice without starting the clock and charging you for every minute long call?
  6. Will you be an important client to them or will they forget about you when the next client comes calling?
  7. Will they proactively help you with your business and send you articles of interest or legal bulletins that they know are relevant to you (without charge…)?
  8. Are they going to be your main contact and do the work themselves or are they just “fronting” getting you on-board as a client before they delegate to a less experienced junior lawyer?
  9. Will they advise you on the law in the context of your business rather than a one size fits all – this is VERY important or you could end up spending a lot more money that you need to.
  10. Will they give you a sensible risk analysis to guide you through difficult decisions rather than telling you that you can’t do it?
  11. Do they abhor the idea of “over-lawyering” (ie creating issues where there doesn’t need to be issues) just to rack up the fees? Yes, believe it or not, some lawyers do this…
  12. Will they deliver sensible, practical, business-focussed advice in the simplest and most efficient way?
  13. Do they have the knowledge and experience to advise you on all aspects of your business (think intellectual property, employment, property lease, litigation etc) and to support you as your business grows (think investment, joint ventures, exits etc) or at the least are they in a network where such services can be provided at a similar quality.
  14. Will they make getting from A to Z as stress free as possible and even pleasurable… Yes this is possible! Do you actually like this person??
  15. Are they modern, vibrant and fast paced or a bit of a plodder – remember you are likely to be paying for those long winded meetings and telephone conversations and you don’t want to lose the will to live every time you talk to your lawyer.
  16. Do they really listen to what you want or do they hear what they think you want.
  17. Do they use the latest technology to communicate or are they stuck in the dark ages of dictating a letter to their secretary and sending it out by post?
  18. And perhaps most importantly, are they fair and transparent with their fees. Note, I did not say “cheap” – generally if you pay peanuts, you get monkeys… Ask for a fixed fee if possible although note that lawyers will be reluctant to fix fees where there are other lawyers involved as they do not know how the negotiations will go. But for something that they are in control of, such as drafting your standard terms of business, they should be able to provide a fixed fee quote. For hourly rates, check what basis your lawyer charges on – most lawyers will charge in at least 6 minute units and some 10 minutes – what this means is that if they call you and get your voicemail they could in theory (and many do) charge you for 10 minutes’ work which on an hourly rate of say £300 per hour is £50 for that missed call…!

Be sure to look out for the next edition where we deal with how to get the most out of your “great” lawyer once you have found them.

© Suzanne Dibble 2013

Disclaimer

Although the concepts in this article have global application, the information contained in the article is based on English law only and is provided for information purposes only and is not intended to amount to advice on which reliance should be placed. Suzanne disclaims all liability and responsibility arising from any reliance placed on such information. Professional advice should be obtained before taking or refraining from taking any action as a result of the above contents.