Where there's a will there's a bill

You call your solicitor. His meter ticks. Your heart pounds. But it needn't be that bad. Grania Langdon-Down on choosing, and losing, your lawyer
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The Independent Online
What's the difference between a lawyer and a shopping trolley? At least you get your money back on the trolley. For the one in 10 people who seek advice or help from a solicitor every year, many for the first time, jokes about legal bills have a hollow ring. The reasons for going to a solicitor are many and varied, but most involve a high level of stress - moving home, setting up in business, getting divorced, making a will, resolving a landlord-tenant dispute, facing a criminal charge or claiming compensation following an accident.

Equally stressful is the task of finding a solicitor in the first place. Some people inherit a family solicitor - not always successfully, as Louisa's story demonstrates (see box) - but many others have to choose a solicitor from the 60,000-plus that practise in England and Wales alone. Word-of-mouth recommendations and advice agencies are popular, but not foolproof, routes. And as for trial and error ... if you pick a solicitor simply because his practice is opposite your office, there's always a possibility that he will turn out to be useless.

Increasingly, people are prepared to shop around to find a local firm offering the best deal. This is especially important for conveyancing and wills, which are generally done for a flat, but widely varying, fee. Compare prices by ringing for quotes - no commitment required. On the other hand, some lawyers are touting for business with a brashness that is dividing the legal profession - advertising on hospital out-patient cards, for example, and buying lists of accident victims' names to generate business from personal-injury claims.

Getting on with their solicitor is a high priority for many people. According to David Bacon, partner in the Northampton practice Borneo Martell & Partners, people will often visit several lawyers to find one they feel a rapport with. Many solicitors offer a free half-hour consultation, so that both sides can get a feel for each other before the meter starts ticking. This also gives you a chance to assess whether a case is worth pursuing.

Once a solicitor has started working for you, ask him or her to confirm in writing details from the first meeting, such as an estimate of costs, how long the matter is likely to take, when the next contact will be, and whether there are to be regular bills. Once work is under way, keep control of costs by putting a cap on the amount the solicitor may spend before re-assessing progress. Most legal work, apart from conveyancing and wills, is billed on the time taken - and hourly rates vary hugely.

A partner in one large London firm, for example, charges private clients about pounds 235 an hour. The amount covers central expenses, such as rent and secretarial costs, and an amount towards the partner's salary, with a theoretical profit margin of 30 per cent. A partner in a provincial practice, by contrast, charges pounds 110 an hour - pounds 30 going to the solicitor and the rest on the costs of the practice.

The question to ask is whether the extra costs of a big-name, central- London law firm are worth it in terms of experience and expertise, or whether the bill merely reflects the classy address and high overheads. One top-billing senior partner claims: "I can do the work in half the time it would take most people." Difficult issues, involving tax or a bitter divorce, require expert handling and it could prove cheaper in the long run to pay for the best rather than rely on someone with little experience in that field.

Charges for conveyancing also vary between firms, usually based on a percentage of the price of the property. For example, one large central- London practice charges half a per cent on properties up to pounds 500,000, with a minimum charge of pounds 850 for freehold and pounds 950 for leasehold properties. A south London practice, on the other hand, quoted pounds 750 for handling the sale and purchase of two properties costing pounds 170,000 and pounds 195,000.

Personal-injury claims require you to place considerable trust in your lawyer.Solicitors can now take on cases on a "no win, no fee" basis, enabling victims who are not eligible for legal aid and lack trade-union funding or insurance to cover legal expenses to make a claim without fear of the costs. The solicitor can charge an additional fee of up to 25 per cent of any compensation received, on top of normal charges, if the case is successful. If it fails, he receives nothing. However, there is the risk that an unsuccessful claimant will have to pick up their opponent's costs. Last weekthe Law Society launched its Accident Line, offering insurance to cover costs (in the event a case is lost) for a premium of pounds 85. Anyone who has had an accident in the past three years can ring its free helpline to get in touch with a solicitor.

If choosing your solicitor is stressful, settling the bill can be equally traumatic. While many people swallow hard and pay up, bills can be challenged, initially through the firm's own complaints procedure. If the firm proves unresponsive, the Law Society will carry out a free review of charges in cases that have not gone to court. If your case has gone to court, you can ask the court to assess whether the bill is fair and reasonable. However, that generally requires further legal advice and could add substantially to the final cost.

Hiring a lawyer may be complicated, but firing one is relatively straightforward. Give notification in writing, with details of whom the papers should be passed on to if you have instructed another solicitor to take over. Clients may lose faith in their solicitor if he recommends accepting an offer with which they are unhappy. Delays, unexpectedly large bills, or personality clashes can also prompt people to change. However, it is likely the solicitor will want payment for work carried out up to that point, and papers can be held until the account is settled.

Louisa Jones 'inherited' the solicitor who had acted for her family since she was a child. But it proved an unhappy bequest and illustrates the importance of having a rapport with, and confidence in, a legal adviser

"It seemed the obvious thing to go to the family solicitor when I was buying my first flat. It was a leasehold property and I asked him to go through the lease because I didn't understand it and all the legal jargon. But he made me feel incredibly stupid, added to which he was curt and clearly in a hurry. I left still not understanding it at all, having been too intimidated to ask him to be more helpful. I decided then I would try to find another lawyer. I plucked up courage and told him but, to my surprise, he persuaded me to stay. Then I telephoned to check all was going to plan before I went on holiday and he laid into me, accusing me of pestering him, claiming no high-street solicitor would even have returned my calls. I was left in tears. But later, when he realised how upset I was, he was all sweetness and light, trying to woo me back. I felt he was very manipulative as well as arrogant. The pressure turned what should have been a straightforward purchase into a nightmare.

It tends to be ingrained in you to defer to solicitors as you do to doctors, and it was hard to say enough is enough. But I feel much happier now with a woman solicitor who makes me feel at ease."

Where to get advice on legal matters

u The Solicitors' Complaints Bureau investigates complaints of inadequate service and professional misconduct. In a typical month, 60 per cent of the complaints about inadequate service relate to solicitors failing to keep clients informed about costs. Tel: 01926 822007/8/9

u Accident Line Freephone 0500 192939.

u The National Consumer Council's leaflet, Getting the Best from Your Solicitor, is currently being updated and expanded by the Law Society. Available from September.

u Wills on average cost from pounds 50 to pounds 85. Each autumn the Law Society mounts Make a Will Week, with many solicitors offering expert will-making services at special rates. Tel: 0171-242 1222

u The Lawyers for Business Scheme offers a free first interview for those setting up or expanding a small business. Tel: 0171-405 9075.