Although clients technically instruct solicitors, the imbalance in knowledge means that solicitors invariably lead, and clients meekly follow. It needn't be like that. Finding the right solicitor, like finding the right property, often takes considerable time and energy. But, as Robert Liebman finds, this is time and energy usually well spent.

A London homeowner tried to buy a small plot of land at the back of his garden and ended up with a steep solicitor's bill, no addition to his garden, and plenty of questions about the legal profession.

Laurence owned a three-story Edwardian terraced house in Fulham which backed onto a derelict alley that ran the length of the terrace. All of the gardens were small, and when Laurence was offered the chance to purchase his section of alleyway, he eagerly grasped the opportunity to increase his garden by almost a half.

Letters piled up, and his solicitor's fees mounted accordingly, until the solicitor noted a restrictive covenant allowing the seller emergency access through Laurence's property. Laurence wanted no part of it and he withdrew, settling his solicitor's bill, which had run to several hundred pounds. His one regret was that the offending covenant hadn't come to his attention closer to the start of proceedings.

Laurence's friend Richard had observed these goings-on, and when he came to buy his own property, he instructed his solicitors to alert him sooner rather than later to tricky covenants. He needn't have bothered.

His solicitors had other surprises up their sleeves, some involving defects of character, others involving difficulties with basic maths.

Richard phoned his solicitor for a progress report on a Friday and was told that his solicitor was in a meeting. His call was not returned, so he phoned on the Monday, only for the receptionist to tell him that his solicitor had gone on a two-week holiday abroad. When he then asked her who in the firm was currently handling his file and what progress had been made over the past few weeks, she replied "no one" and "none".

Delay was not in Richard's interest. He had found a superb property, and he did not want the seller to be tempted to entertain thoughts of other buyers. The news that his file had sat unattended for several weeks had fairly devastated him, and the emotional damage could not be undone when, a few days later, he learned that in fact his file had been handled all along by his solicitor's clerk.

Richard insisted that the file now be handled by the other solicitor in the practice who, as completion neared, told him to write a cheque in an amount that would have meant an underpayment of pounds 1,000. Fortunately, she caught her own error in time.

Yes, solicitors are entitled to holidays, and mistakes occur in all professions. But these two firms of solicitors alone cornered a pretty good market in malfeasance, nonfeasance, misfeasance and various other feasances.

Regarding runaway legal fees, whether for a postage-stamp plot of land or a vast estate, "responsible solicitors always bear in mind the kind of case they are dealing with and maintain a sense of proportion. The solicitor should inform clients if costs start to rise disproportionately," says Tony Miles, a solicitor in the Northampton offices of Howes Percival. "With an inexpensive plot, the solicitor could have dispensed with formal contracts and asked for a copy of title straightaway."

As for vacationing solicitors, "it's not likely that many clients will ask their solicitor when he is likely to go on holiday, and solicitors may not be able to inform all of their clients. On the other hand, solicitors should notify those clients who might be affected by the absence," says Mr Miles.

"If you are deeply unhappy with a solicitor, disinstruct him. It happens, unfortunately." It can complicate matters, and you shouldn't do it if it harms more than helps your cause, but you can do it. Richard had come to regard his own solicitors as adversaries and had seriously thought of changing midstream. The merest possibility of still further delay, however, kept him where he was.

Far better than disinstructing a solicitor is finding a good one from the outset, and Mr Miles believes that there is no substitute for meeting with and getting a good feel for your prospective solicitor. The good news is that you can, in effect, audition several solicitors without having to reach into your wallet: "Many solicitors charge little or nothing for a short first interview."

So says a 14-page Law Society brochure, "Working With Your Solicitor," which is as good a starting point as any. In addition to information about fees and other basic information, it discusses and asserts the often overlooked fact that all firms must have - and promulgate - a complaints procedure: "The letter your solicitor sent you after your first meeting should give the name of the person at the firm who handles complaints."

Howes Percival provides all of its conveyancing clients with their own guide, "What Happens Next," which clearly, concisely and simply details the procedures on a step-by-step basis. "This came about as a result of the quality questionnaire which we also send out to all of our clients," says Mr Miles. "One of our clients filled in the questionnaire and indicated that what he referred to as an `idiot's guide' would be helpful. So we prepared one."

In Mr Miles' opinion, clients help themselves by being assertive and communicative. "Tell your solicitor your requirements, hopes and intentions for the property. He will then be able to respond. If a client has a complaint or problem and doesn't tell you, it festers. The earlier it can be raised, the sooner and better it can be resolved. And despite their aura of being highly trained professionals, solicitors can and should be challenged."

A solicitor you can challenge is also likely to be one you can fully communicate with; finding one should be a priority.

Howes Percival, Oxford House, Cliftonville, Northampton NN1 5PN, 01604 230400 (also in Milton Keynes and Norwich); Law Society, 113 Chancery Lane, London WC2A 1SX, 0171 242 1222.

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