The MyLegalAdviser guide to finding a laywer
Everything you need to know when you're looking for a lawyer.
Whether you’ve never used a lawyer before or you use them all the time, finding a lawyer can be daunting.
There are so many different types of lawyer and law firm out there (solicitor, barrister, partner, associate, high street, City…the list goes on!): it’s difficult to know what type of lawyer you need. And when you figure that out, where do you go to find the best lawyer for a fair price?
With so few answers to so many questions, we thought we’d put together the MyLegalAdviser Guide to Finding a Lawyer.
IN THIS GUIDE
- Types of lawyer
- Types of law firm
- Level of lawyer
- Where to look
- Hiring tips
- Any questions?
What different types of lawyer are there?
You’ve probably heard lots of different names for lawyers – solicitors, barristers, partners, legal executives, etc. So what’s the difference and which one do you want?
The term ‘lawyer’ just means someone who studies or works in the field of law. For example, a law student could call themself a lawyer, but you wouldn’t necessarily want them drafting your Will!
With the field of law, some lawyers have particular qualifications and are trained and licensed to practice specialist areas of law. Here’s a few of the ones you’re most likely to come across:
Solicitors and legal executives
Solicitors and legal executives are generally the public’s first port of call for legal advice. You’ll typically find them working in an office – although the office can be anywhere from your local high-street to a skyscraper in Canary Wharf.
Solicitors are qualified to advise on all areas of law. However, they tend to specialise in certain areas. Solicitors are regulated by the Solicitors Regulation Authority and must undertake rigorous academic and vocational training to qualify. This vocational training is often known as a training contract (hence someone doing it is known as a ‘trainee solicitor’) and is generally a two year period of working in a number of different areas (‘seats’).
Legal executives (or Chartered Legal Executives as they are formally known) are only qualified to practice certain areas of law (e.g. family or employment). Chartered Legal Executives are governed by the Chartered Institute of Legal Executives and also undergo rigorous academic and vocational training in order to qualify. Legal executives who have not yet completed their vocational/academic training are known as trainee legal executives.
Barristers are slightly different to solicitors and legal executives. You won’t generally hire a barrister personally; a solicitor would usually do that for you. Barristers are self-employed and generally join what are called chambers (a group of barristers who join forces to share costs and expenses).
Barristers have what are called ‘rights of audience’ which allow them to represent their clients in the higher courts in the UK. Barristers also often advise solicitors on the trickier points of law. There are far fewer barristers in the UK than there are solicitors or legal executives. Barristers are regulated by the Bar Standards Board and they too have to undergo rigorous specialist training before getting a pupillage (their version of vocational training) and obtaining ‘tenancy’ (a permanent position at a chambers).
Licensed conveyancers, paralegals, legal assistants, etc.
There are plenty of other titles given to lawyers which you may come across.
Some, like licensed conveyancers, require training and a qualification. Others, such as paralegals and legal assistants, are used more generally to describe those working in the legal area, but who have no specific legal qualification.
Although they may not have a specific legal qualification, many paralegals and legal assistants have a wealth of experience and knowledge which rivals that of qualified solicitors and legal executives.
What different types of law firm are there?
You may have heard the terms ‘City’, ‘high-street’, ‘regional’ or ‘boutique’ firm before. These terms aren’t official; they’re just groups some people like to broadly categorise firms into.
Whilst these categories are very broad and stereotypical, knowing the general difference can be helpful when deciding what kind of law firm you should be looking for your lawyer at.
So, let’s take a quick look at the types you’ll most frequently see:
- City firm
- Although this traditionally refers to a law firm in the City of London ‘Square Mile’, many now use it just to refer to a law firm based in central London. When someone refers to a City firm they are usually referring to the UK’s foremost law firms, many of which have an international presence, such as those in the ‘Magic’ or ‘Silver’ Circles (generally regarded as the leading law firms in the UK). These types of firm are geared toward large, well established businesses (such as publicly listed companies) and very wealthy individuals.
- High-street firm
- A high-street firm is, as the name suggests, the type of law firm you’d find on your local high street. Having said that, some firms not actually located on a high street might be referred to as high-street firms, whilst some firms located on a high street can service more complex enquiries and are keen to distance themselves from the high-street stereotype. High-street firms are generally geared towards more common, low value enquiries (such as wills and conveyancing) and typically service the more unsophisticated legal consumer.
- Regional firms
- A regional firm is a firm based outside London. Regional firms vary widely in size and the level of work they undertake. Some of the largest and most successful regional firms attract work that top City firms would be keen to get their hands on.
- National firms
- National firms have offices located around the UK. Whilst some national firms may only have a few offices, others employ thousands of people and have lots of offices based all over the UK. As with regional firms, the largest and most successful national firms can attract very high value complex work which they can do at lower prices as their offices and lawyers are based outside London.
- Boutique firms
- Boutique firms are practices which tend to specialise in one particular area of law, or working for one particular type of client. They tend to be smaller in size, employing only a few people.
- Virtual firms
- Virtual law firms are a relatively recent development. Virtual firms provide centralised admin assistance and, sometimes, office space to their lawyers, who usually act on a consultancy basis. These lawyers generally bring established practices to the firm and have often been partners at traditional law firms. The virtual firm model gives the lawyers flexibility in how they work. It also means they can afford to charge their clients less as they don’t have the usual big firm overheads to pay.
What level of lawyer should you be looking for?
Every case is different, but hopefully this guide can help you determine what level of lawyer you require for your enquiry.
Up until recently, law firms were traditionally formed as partnerships or LLPs (Limited Liability Partnerships). Whilst partnerships and LLPs are different types of entity, the top ranks of both are generally just referred to as ‘partners’.
The partners are effectively the bosses of the firms and, whilst some partners own the business and some may only be salaried employees, the title ‘partner’ generally denotes a lawyer who has a wealth of knowledge and experience.
Because of this, some clients like to request a partner as they will often have more experience and knowledge than more junior lawyers. This is particularly the case with a complex query or transaction. Partners generally have a higher hourly rate to reflect their experience and knowledge.
In 2012 it became possible for law firms to be formed as limited companies. This meant that law firms no longer had to be owned and run by lawyers (as they had previously).
More and more law firms are converting to, or being formed as, limited companies. Limited companies don’t have any partners, so the senior lawyers in those firms may not be titled partners. Instead, they are often known by titles such as ‘director’.
Associates, assistants, solicitors and legal executives
Qualified lawyers who aren’t partners or directors are given a variety of titles depending on each firm’s ranking structure. The most common of these are associates, assistants and the plain old solicitor and legal executive titles. Some firms even use extra titles, like senior associate, to denote more high-ranking employees.
Each firm’s rankings are different, so you’ll need to check the firm’s website or ask if you want to know how it works at that firm.
These titles cover lawyers who have just qualified, right up to those who have decades of experience (often just as much as some partners). Because of this, the cost of each lawyer (i.e. their hourly rate) can vary widely.
As a general rule of thumb, lawyers who have more Post Qualification Experience (PQE) tend to be more expensive as they have more experience. If you want to know how much PQE a lawyer has, and it doesn’t say on the firm’s website, you can check when they qualified on the Law Society website.
Trainee solicitors and legal executives
As you would expect, trainee solicitors and legal executives are solicitors and legal executives in training (mind-blowing right?). Trainees can work for many years before qualifying, which means some trainees may be relatively experienced, whilst some will literally just have started their professional careers. Trainee solicitors at bigger firms usually do four, or sometimes six, ‘seats’ (different areas/departments). This means that these trainees often haven’t spent much time in any one department and so will have limited experience in each area.
Trainees generally have much lower charge out rates than qualified lawyers. The work each trainee does should be supervised by a qualified lawyer though so, even if you deal with a trainee directly, you should be receiving the benefit of a qualified lawyer’s experience.
Top Tip Less complex cases may best be served with more junior lawyers to save on cost.
What practice area should your lawyer specialise in?
So you know you need a lawyer, but how do you know what area they should specialise in?
When it’s not as simple as needing a commercial lawyer for a commercial contract or family lawyer for a divorce, finding the right lawyer can be difficult. Perhaps, for example, you need someone really specialist, or you need advice in more than one area. If you’re unsure, what are your options?
If you’re already talking to a lawyer, they’ll usually be able to help you identify exactly what area you need help with. But if you haven’t got a lawyer to talk to, things can be more difficult. This is where a service like MyLegalAdviser can really help, as we identify all the work that needs to be done for you and then get you the best quotes in each of those areas.
Top Tip If you’re a little stuck and looking for some direction, feel free to email, call or ask us on Twitter or Facebook.
Where should you look for your lawyer?
Once you know what type of lawyer you need (usually a solicitor or legal executive practising in a specific area) the next step is finding an actual person who can help you.
So, where do you look and what are your options?
Use a lawyer you’ve used before
Using a lawyer you already know can be a good choice. If you were happy with the job they did last time, you’re likely to be satisfied again. And if you’re asking them to do something related, they’ll already know a bit about you so it may not take as long to explain the situation and may not cost as much.
If it’s not related though, they may not be able to help. Often they’ll offer to refer you to another lawyer in the firm (if they work for one). The problem with this kind of referral though is that it’s always in the firm’s best interests to keep the work ‘in-house’ since it means they get to keep your business. Whilst the lawyer they refer you to may be great, equally they may not be, so how do you know whether to trust the referral? Also, how do you know whether or not you’re getting a good quote?
Word of mouth recommendation
Lots of people like to ask friends and family for recommendations. This can be a good way to find a lawyer if the lawyer practices in the area you’re looking for. Unfortunately this isn’t always possible and, sometimes, you might end up settling for the wrong lawyer just because it’s the only feasible recommendation you get. Likewise, just because someone comes recommended, how do you know you’re getting a good deal unless you do a bit of shopping around?
More and more people are turning to the internet to find their lawyer. Many law firms have caught on to this so are pouring vast resources into snazzy websites that push their firm to the top of your internet search. Just because a firm comes at the top of your Google search, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’ll get a lawyer you’ll be happy with at a decent price.
There are plenty of excellent lawyers out there, so it pays to shop around a bit. How do you know where to shop though? In recent years, a number of online services have sprung up offering price comparison and referral services. Whilst these many of these may at first sight appear to offer a good way of finding a lawyer, a lot of them are nothing more than referral centres where your details are simply sent off to the highest bidder.
Not only does this mean you know very little about who is getting your information, if/when the lawyers do get in touch (a test by the Law Society found many sites didn’t even respond!) you may end up having to explain your situation multiple times. And even if you do get a response, without any price and ratings comparison element, how do you know you’re getting a fair price from a good lawyer?
So why are we different?
MyLegalAdviser is the UK’s first all-in-one price comparison and ratings service for lawyers. You tell us what you need just once and we share your enquiry (anonymised) with the many lawyers on our service.
We then send you the three best quotes in an easy to understand format and allow you to compare the profiles, ratings and testimonials of each lawyer before, making your decision.
That means you can compare prices and the quality of each lawyer before you pick someone. No other service out there gives you so much information for free!
Everything you need to know about instructing a lawyer
Make sure they understand what you want
Firstly, it’s important to make sure the lawyer understands what it is you need. There’s nothing worse than a misunderstanding, meaning you perhaps incur unnecessary fees or miss that deadline.
Many lawyers (but not all) will offer a free first half hour meeting or call so you can explain your needs. Lawyers are generally very good at getting all the information they need from you. However, if there’s something you think is important which your lawyer hasn’t asked for, tell them! It’s better to be sure they know everything than to be disappointed.
Once they know what you need doing, lawyers will generally give you a fee estimate or fixed fee quote. If they don’t volunteer one, you should definitely ask for one, as it sets the ground rules to make sure you won’t be surprised later. It’s worth doing this before going through the rigmarole of signing the letter of engagement and providing your due diligence etc.
How to make sure you don’t get stung on fees
Many potential clients are often scared to instruct a lawyer because they’re worried about the lawyer incurring massive fees which they’ll be on the hook for.
A good lawyer should always be upfront with you about fees and, if they think they are going to exceed their quote, should tell you beforehand and give you a new estimate.
Unfortunately, not all lawyers do this. So, how do you protect yourself to make sure the fees you pay are what you expected?
The best way is to agree the type of fee and how fees are incurred at the very start and each time it becomes clear that more work needs to be done. We’ve set out below some of the different types of fee arrangements, along with the best ways to protect yourself.
A fixed fee is often preferable to an estimate as it means you know exactly what fee you’ll be paying for the work. This avoids any nasty surprises when the lawyer raises their bill later on!
Although fixed fees are becoming more and more common, a lot of lawyers can be quite resistant to providing a fixed fee and will instead offer an estimate. An estimate is generally based on how long the work will take at the hourly rates of the lawyers who will be acting for you.
Remember, an estimate is just that – an estimate. The fee could go down or up!
If your lawyer won’t offer a fixed fee, consider asking for a ‘capped’ fee or set limits (see below).
If you can’t get a fixed fee then a good, and sometimes preferable, alternative is to ask a lawyer to ‘cap’ their fees at a certain amount. This means they can’t exceed this amount without telling you.
Sometimes, things are just too unclear, or the work is just too unpredictable, for lawyers to give a proper fee estimate or fixed fee quote at the beginning. This is often the case where, for example, there is a contentious element involved or where an initial review needs to be prepared in order to establish how to proceed. Where this is the case it’s often a good idea to try and get a fixed fee, or capped estimate, for any individual parts of the work which can be priced up.
If a capped or fixed fee isn’t appropriate, another good idea is to ask your lawyer to notify you each time they reach a predetermined limit. For example, ask them to notify you every £1,000 of fees they incur. This allows you to keep tabs on the fees you’re spending.
No win no fee
No win no fee arrangements (also known as a Conditional Fee Agreements) are a specific type of fee arrangement relating to litigation.
No win no fee arrangements are often misunderstood by clients.
If a client wins their claim, their lawyer earns their fee and usually a success fee (bonus) from the opposing party, typically an insurance company.
If the client loses their claim though, whilst the client is not liable to pay their lawyer’s fees, they are liable to pay their lawyer’s disbursements as well as the other side’s lawyer’s fees and disbursements. This can sometimes prove to be very expensive!
Before you enter into a no win no fee arrangement, it’s worth asking some questions about what exactly you’ll be on the hook for. It may also be worth considering taking out ‘After The Event’ insurance to cover the costs in case you lose.
Setting clear boundaries on fees at the beginning limits the potential for problems later on. If you have a clear agreement on fees with a lawyer and they try to change this when they raise an invoice later on, you’ll be in a very strong position to refuse to pay any more.
If a lawyer won’t budge on fees but they didn’t discuss any increase with you, refer them to your correspondence/conversations on fees and, where necessary, say you want to speak to a partner or make a complaint. If things are getting out of hand, get in touch with your Legal Ombudsman and explain the situation to them. Lawyers generally won’t fight too hard for further fees where it’s clear you didn’t agree to them and/or weren’t notified of them.
If you’re not sure whether a lawyer’s fees are justified, you can ask them to send you the ‘billing narrative’. Most lawyers record their time in 6 or 10 minutes units. Each entry is accompanied by a narrative, which should tell you what they did to justify that entry. For example, if a lawyer puts down 2 hours for a simple e-mail you may want to ask for an explanation as to how that entry is justified.
Top Tip We recommend, where possible, to ask your lawyer for a fixed fee quote or capped estimate. If you can’t do that, get the lawyer to quote for whichever individually identifiable pieces of work they can and to notify you at appropriate limits (e.g. every £1,000) so fees don’t spiral out of control.
Discuss any deadlines
If there is a deadline on the work you need doing, it’s best to be very clear and up front with your lawyer about this as early as possible. Lawyers have their own caseloads and if they’re very busy they may struggle to meet a deadline you only tell them about later on.
Unless you genuinely don’t mind when your work will be done by, it’s generally a good idea to set a deadline as it gives a timeframe for your lawyer to work towards. If there is no timeframe, and you don’t seem too concerned about when the work is done by, your work may get pushed to the bottom of the pile.
If you do have a deadline or you’re concerned about how long something is taking, it can be a good idea to give your lawyer a push every once in a while. Lawyers often have lots of work to do so they prioritise work that clients are pushing for over matters where the client stays quiet. Careful though, if you spend too much time hassling your lawyer you may have to pay for it!
Top Tip Lawyers will often prioritise work where the client is a little more proactive and gives them an occasional nudge. Try not to bother them too much though or you may get a bill for all that extra time you spent pestering them!
Sign up documentation
Lawyers should send you what’s called an engagement letter when you instruct them. This is a letter/contract which sets out: that you want to instruct them, what you’ve asked them to do, who will be doing the work for you and what it will cost. Check this carefully to make sure it’s what you discussed/agreed, particularly on what you want them to do for you and fees.
Unless your matter is extremely urgent, most lawyers will generally require you to sign and return this before they’ll start work. That’s normal, so the sooner you get it done the sooner they’ll start.
Lawyers are required to undertake anti-money laundering steps for all their clients. Not every lawyer will request the same documentation, but generally you’ll be asked for proof of identification, address and, if the client is a corporate entity, key corporate documentation (e.g. the registers of directors/shareholders and articles of association).
Lawyers will generally either want to see original proof of identification and address, or they’ll want certified copies (copies taken by another lawyer or accountant who certifies them as ‘true copies’).
Requests of this kind are perfectly normal, and most lawyers won’t start work until you give them what they ask for, so the quicker you get it to them the sooner they’ll begin work.
Top Tip Take your passport/driving licence and a recent original utility bill/bank statement with you to an initial meeting with a lawyer. That way, if you do instruct them, you won’t have to go back or post copies of your due diligence.
Funds on account
Many lawyers ask for funds on account before they will start work. The amount requested can vary: often it is around half of the fee estimate, but it can be up to as much as the full fee estimate. Likewise, where disbursements are payable (e.g. for conveyancing searches or court fees) lawyers will generally ask for money on account to pay these costs as they arise. This is quite standard for many law firms, so don’t be put off if you’re asked for a little money up front.
Any funds paid on account should be kept on the firm’s client account. Unless the fees are used to pay disbursements which you’ve agreed to, they shouldn’t be used to settle the lawyer’s fees until you’ve been sent an invoice. You can request a copy of your client account statement at any time. If you’re worried your funds have been used without your permission, ask for a copy of your client account statement and take a look.
Well that’s the end of our guide, we hope you found it helpful!
If you have any questions, feel free to get in contact with us through our website, via facebook or on twitter @mylegaladviser.
And if you’re looking for a top lawyer, why not try our service to get some free, no-obligation quotes from excellent lawyers now?