Many businesses do not consult a solicitor until there is a major problem. Yet there are many common legal pitfalls and using a solicitor early on can protect your firm and save you money. There are eight new employment laws due out in 2008 alone, not to mention the New Trading Laws which came into force in May. Here we look at why you might need a solicitor, how to find one you are happy with and what costs you might expect. There is a checklist of initial questions to ask and details of how your business can get free advice. There is also a section on how to complain, plus useful websites. You can also look in more detail at some of these issues by clicking on the related guides.
Why would you need a solicitor?
Frequent legal errors include wrongly setting up the legal structure of the business, not taking advice when signing a lease for business premises. Finance, tax, insurance and cash flow can all be potential legal minefields. If you buy or sell, you need to know your legal duties with regard to contract law, product liability and advertising. (See separate articles on contracts and the law and contracts and the internet).
A solicitor can also help protect your ideas, or help with franchising (someone certainly needs to check the small print in the sale agreement to stop you being trapped in an unsuitable deal). Some businesses need a licence to trade. Employment law is another complex area and most employment disagreements come from bad contracts or illegal dismissal procedures. Then there are the problems that no-one can foresee – such as falling out with partners, sickness, even death. Your business should have a plan for such events. Of course you can find detailed information on many of these subjects on the Duport website, but if you need specific answers you may need to consult a solicitor. If you have a legal dispute and have to go to court you will no doubt also want take professional advice.
How to find the right solicitor for your business
You need to know where to look, how to get free consultations and the right questions to ask a solicitor before deciding which to use.
The Law Society, the professional body for solicitors offers a scheme called Lawyers for Your Business. (LFYB) They will give you a list of participating solicitors in your area or with a particular specialisation for your needs and you will get a free half hour consultation. See the Duport freebies section.
LFYB represents around 1,200 firms of solicitors in England and Wales which help ensure all businesses, but especially the smaller owner-managed ones, get access to sound legal advice whenever they need it. It recognises that, for fear of running up large legal bills, a business will often not consult a solicitor until they have a serious problem. Most businesses can save themselves the risk of incurring high legal costs with a free consultation to diagnose the problem with information on action and likely costs of proceeding. The service is managed and promoted by the Law Society and been welcomed by the Federation of Small Business and others.
Another way to find a good solicitor is by recommendation, so ask other businesses and business associates if they can recommend anyone. If you belong to a trade or professional association they may have useful contacts who deal with your type of business. Look on the Trade Association Forum (TAF) website to find your trade association www.taforum.org . Trade associations can often give specific detailed advice. You can also use your local Business Link, Chamber of Commerce or Enterprise Agency.
Many small businesses prefer to use a small firm of solicitors where their business will be valued. Costs are usually lower and it may be easier to build up a good relationship.
What should you look for?
If you need a specialist you might want to contact the Law Society under the Lawyers For Your Business. Even if you don’t you can still contact a local solicitor this way and get the free half hour consultation. Whoever you choose to meet you must check their qualifications. All solicitors must hold a practising certificate issued by the Law Society (the only exception to this is if they are only employed by your business). The certificate guarantees the solicitor is qualified and has insurance to protect you if anything goes wrong.
Get quotes from several solicitors, make a shortlist and try to meet face to face. The first initial interview should be free of charge (make sure you get this) and be sure this consultation is with the person you will be dealing with (you don’t want to be passed to a junior if you are paying fees for the partner). Charges are normally agreed at an hourly rate, but you may be able to agree a fixed spending limit.
Solicitors usually charge in two parts – their fees, plus disembursments – money they have to spend on your behalf. Work done by a partner or senior solicitor will be more expensive than work done by assistants. You need to know the hourly rate and if this will vary. You will also be charged for advice given on the phone, so don’t ramble on. Give your solicitor clear instructions about what you want done. Make sure you draw up a written agenda.
Bills should be itemised so you can clearly see what you are paying for. If you are unhappy with the bill and feel you have been overcharged talk to the solicitor immediately. You can complain (see below) and if you cannot get a reduction you can usually require the solicitor to obtain a certificate from the Law Society to say the bill is fair. You can also ask for it to be assessed by court.
General questions to ask a solicitor:
- do they understand the nature of your business? Provide a summary to help
- is the solicitor comfortable with the work you want them to do and happy you can work together?
- what qualifications do they have? They absolutely must have a practising certificate issued by the Law Society (normally prominently displayed), but they may also have addition qualifications or specialist areas of interest. If these are relevant to you it may be worth paying extra, but if you don’t need the service you might be able to find a cheaper service elsewhere
- what is the hourly rate?
- can they outline what they will do for you in order for you to meet your goals?
- do they speak in clear, plain language and not confuse you with legal jargon? If a solicitor cannot explain everything clearly you should go elsewhere
- what practical solutions can they provide? You want specific targets to be met
- how often will they be in contact – will it be by phone, email, fact to face or letter?
- will they provide you with a client care letter that sets out their terms of business and complaints procedure? Any decent solicitor will provide this, so if they don’t it should set alarm bells ringing
- what other services may they provide as your business develops? The firm may have a range of services on employment law or insurance and it may work out more cost effective to use them.
Once you have answers to the above you should have a gut feeling whether the advice has been useful and the solicitor has your best interests at heart. Check the rates are in line with others in the area. In particular check there are no hidden charges or extras that may be lumped onto your bill.
How to complain
Act quickly if you need to complain by writing directly to the person who handles complaints (normally this person is named in the client care letter provided at the beginning). Outline the problem and ask for confirmation who will deal with it and how long it will take. If the complaint is about the bill do it quickly (time limits apply if you need to take the complaint to the next level).
Hopefully any complaint will be quickly resolved but if you need to go further you can take the complaint to the Law Society’s Consumer Complaints Service (CCS). This independent body will try to arbitrate between you and the solicitor and can award compensation if necessary. If the complain cannot be resolved to your satisfaction you might be able to complain to the Office of the Legal Services Ombudsman (OLSO) about the CCS, although OLSO only looks at how the complaint has been handled and not the original complaint.