Solicitors have a reputation for being expensive, yet their services are indispensable for certain specialised services. If you are starting a business, you need legal advice about property leases and contracts of employment. You also need help with things such as legal advice before firing someone, terms and conditions of sale and contracts. So how do you find a good and affordable solicitor?
Choosing a solicitor
- personal recommendation is the usual, and often the best, way to choose a solicitor. Ask for recommendations from people in the same size and field of business as yourself who need similar commercial services
- visit more than one firm. You are looking for someone you can get on with and who talks in language you can understand
- find out what areas they specialise in
- ask about the fee structure for services, but don’t judge on price alone. The personal rapport is more important (providing fees are affordable, of course)
Be aware that in a small legal practice, while you get a more personal service, staff may be too stretched to help if you need advice in a hurry. A larger firm may be able to pass you to another solicitor/specialist if your own adviser is tied up, and will probably offer a wider range of experience.
Know when to consult a solicitor
Solicitors will guide you through any aspect of the legal system. They can also draw up legal documents such as property agreements and transfers. Their advice includes:
- personal guarantees and assistance enforcing your legal rights with debt collection, issuing writs and winding-up orders
- all aspects of employment law
- contracts and settling disputes
- terms and conditions of the sale or acquisition of businesses, franchises and property
- registering a trademark or applying for a patent (hire a specialist for this)terms and conditions of the sale or acquisition of businesses, franchises and property
- fee structure
Since solicitors usually charge by the hour, always ask for an estimate of what the work in question will cost. If they can’t be precise, ask for their hourly or daily rate so you have some indication.
It is worth asking whether you can negotiate a fixed fee, especially if it is for an assignment such as reviewing contracts of employment. Ask for a written statement of what the fee covers, and ask what is not included, since you can’t be expected to know this. For example, expenses (known as disbursements) will probably not be included, so ask for an itemised list of these and the likely charges.
Only once you have all this information, and are happy about the cost (you may want to compare it with the charges made by another solicitor, for instance), are you ready to go ahead. This is known as ‘instructing’ your solicitor.
The advantage of a fixed fee is that you can call your solicitor to see how things are progressing and this will not be counted as an extra. If, however, you are paying by the hour, every phone call and meeting is regarded as chargeable time.
Whatever system you agree, ask your solicitor to brief you on progress at regular intervals. Many do not do this, but you need to know what is going on and what stage matters have reached.
When you take advice from a solicitor for a particular task, such as drawing up a contract, there may be elements that you can easily take care of yourself, such as filling in forms with basic details about your own company. It saves time and therefore money if you do this.
Make sure you understand what you are paying for and that everything is accounted for to your satisfaction. For instance, is it made clear what ‘disbursements’ covers?
Solicitors’ fees must be ‘fair and reasonable’ so if you do not understand your bill when you get it, ask how it is made up.
If you disagree that the bill is ‘fair and reasonable’, you are entitled to challenge it and the solicitor must then get a certificate from the Law Society endorsing its validity. But if you have found a reliable and helpful solicitor to work with, you won’t need to query the bills.
You can minimise legal costs by:
- choosing the right solicitor for your size and type of business
- knowing when to consult a solicitor
- being clear about the fee structure from the outset
- minimising the number of calls to and meetings with your solicitor
- not using a senior partner when the work is low level or routine
- doing as much of the basic groundwork yourself as possible
Finally, always take legal advice before you act. Picking up the pieces afterwards is much more expensive.