Info & Advice

How do I get value for money from my solicitor when splitting up?

This is part two of a two part article on saving money on your legal fees and how to gain the best value. You can read part one here.

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What sort of solicitor is good for divorce cases?

Before concentrating on how to get the most from your solicitor, you need to get the right one.

You are entitled to assume that somebody named as a solicitor knows the law and works to the standards set out in the Regulations/Code laid down by the regulator who is the Solicitors Regulation Authority in England.

Having passed the examinations and obeying the professional rules is just the start of what it takes to be a good solicitor.

What characteristics should I look for in a family law solicitor?

A good solicitor will:

  • have the basic knowledge of the law plus expertise/experience in similar cases
  • have effective ways of working
  • have personal qualities that suit them for your case
  • be able to communicate with you
  • be realistic and honest with you

Not much then!  Expert, effective, trustworthy, realistic, perceptive and a good communicator!

What additional training will a specialist family finance lawyer undergo?

Professional lawyers, like solicitors and barristers, have access to written materials which are regularly updated and since the 1980s, solicitors have been obliged to keep their knowledge current by attending training.  It is called ‘Continuing Professional Development’ (CPD).  At first it was simply attending training courses for a certain number of CPD hours each year, which did not need to have any relevance to the work the lawyer actually did.   A while later it was changed to allow personal study/teaching and writing on legal topics as well as attending training course and the most recent regime is that solicitors must evaluate their training needs, set out goals and record how they have worked to meet those objectives each year.   To do that usually involves online training, attending training events either online or face-to-face and reflecting on what assists the work as a whole, such as considering data security and using appropriate technology both to learn and to deliver services to their clients.

Having a solicitor who is not keeping their knowledge up to date will lead to extra expense:  sometimes a lawyer will try to negotiate based on the law as it appeared to be, not as it is now and sometimes the solicitor is reluctant to admit such an error to their client.  By the time the negotiations are back on the proper basis, money will have been wasted.

What if my lawyer gets it wrong?

The law changes on an a daily basis and whilst some areas of law are more stable than others, being up-to-date is essential to avoid mistakes.    Missing an important case can damage the strengths of the arguments made on your behalf.

Failing to understand the proper process can also cause problems.

If you have a barrister look at your case, either generally for an Opinion or in the lead up to a hearing then they should be able to spot any problems.

Once a problem has been identified, if the solicitor has been wrong in law, they should be willing to consider reducing or reimbursing some of their fees, but there is a big difference with unsuccessfully arguing a point and actually being ‘wrong’ which will be when that approach never had any prospect of success.   Hindsight is wonderful, but if your barrister sets out that the case they have given is completely wrong in law, then if the solicitor accepts that and it is clear, then they should reflect that mistake in reducing their fees.   It is not that ‘losing’ should attract a rebate, but being incompetent in evaluating a case.   Going to law is never risk-free and very senior barristers say that they will rarely estimate a case has more than 70% chance of success because there will always be a residual risk that some new development will impact on what looks a very solid case until that point.  If the case is plain wrong, that is very different to being unsuccessful and a good solicitor will be able to explain your risks so you make an informed choice.  Expertise gives you that informed choice.

What do I ask a solicitor about their expertise?

You could politely ask your solicitor when they last undertook research, training or had a case with similar issues.  If they do not give a satisfactory answer, you may be taking a risk in relying on their ‘expertise’.  When barristers assess cases, they will set out the current law on that topic, either in their written Opinion or in a Position Statement prepared for the judge, so a lawyer who works alongside barristers in that area is getting in-depth, yet informal continuing education.   It is being open and paying attention that matters, not the exact form that knowledge of the law comes from.  Don’t demand the date they did a particular training course – they may have been involved in a case which has become a lead case explained on such a course!   Experience breeds confidence and providing your solicitor is confident for a reason, you should rest easier during your case with them ‘having your back’.

How can my solicitor’s attitude affect the cost of my case?

If a solicitor is disorganised or disinterested, then it is likely that they will be inefficient.

Sometimes the set-up of the law-firm is to blame and badly-managed, frustrated or stressed-out staff will be inherently unlikely to give you good service.   It is unlikely that asking to change to a different lawyer in that firm will see much improvement and going elsewhere might be your best chance of a decent outcome.

Not remembering or being able to easily access information affects the amount of work carried out.   If a solicitor is familiar with the case, then progress will not be affected by needing to check details before each step.   Most family law is dealt with by people who take personal responsibility and do remember what is going on.

There is a difference between needing to check something and sounding ‘lost’ or unfamiliar with your situation.   Somebody else in the team might have done work or seen an email which that person has not, so rather than duplicating or getting something wrong, a quick check with another person or a team may just be to avoid misleading you.   Case-management systems rarely log things automatically, so the system cannot be guaranteed to always be 100% complete so it is not a bad idea for somebody to check with people as well as on the system.

What is a financial remedy application?

At its basic level, a financial remedy application is when one party asks the court to set the timetable for gathering evidence and schedules court dates for decisions to be made.

That might be because there has not been satisfactory disclosure or it might be because the solicitors have recognised that there is some factor which needs an external decision because they cannot agree.

It does not mean that negotiation stops, but it does mean that something needs to change before progress can be made.  That might be because somebody refuses to disclose evidence that might be important or that the lawyers are unable to agree how the law would deal with some factor.  It might even be that somebody needs to accept that a deal needs to be reached when they have stuck their head in the sand and hoped the problem will simply go away.

How often should my solicitor and I be in contact?

Even well-managed finance cases take months, not weeks, and once an application has been made, there are forms to complete and documents to prepare before the first hearing, called the First Appointment for Directions.

The court will give a date for the disclosure to be exchanged by completing Form E and leading up to that, you can expect to be in regular contact – usually by email or by phone.

How much contact will need to take place depends on how well you have completed the form, how well you have collated the supporting evidence and how complicated the narrative about the background needs to be.   Sometimes clients do a brilliant job at form-filling and collating documents.   If they are good at explaining what they think is relevant, then the solicitor has a sound basis to base the narrative sections on.    Getting the explanation of the background to fit the factors the court must regard is where the skills of the lawyer are most useful, so expect that they will want to spend time and effort getting that right for you – it gives the judge a feel for what might need to be looked at.

It is reasonable to email to check progress and what you might still need to do to comply with the deadline for filing your form and exchanging it with the other side.

Why doesn’t my solicitor answer my calls or is slow in responding to emails?

Unless you want to pay a solicitor to be ‘on standby’ in case you want to speak to them and at hundreds of pounds an hour plus VAT even with core hours of 10-4 that would be upwards of £6,000 per week, then you need to accept that the solicitor has other clients and other work to do.

If you are paying them for the work that they actually do on your case, then the fewer interactions that you have, the lower the overall cost.   Keeping that contact focused and useful means you pay what you need to and make your case less stressful to the solicitor, which is appreciated and will in turn generate the good will which can lead to the solicitor going beyond your expectations.

What deadlines might my solicitor need to meet?

Solicitors’ endeavour is a mixture of work governed by the general wish to progress and external deadlines such as

  • those imposed by the court
  • practical deadlines
  • promises
  • arbitrary deadlines from other solicitors

Meeting all those deadlines and expectations means that some activity is more urgent than other work.   It does not make that more important than your wish to make progress, but sometimes a solicitor will have deadlines imposed on them by the court or some practical issue that forces them to prioritise that work.   Their workload or existing commitments mean nothing to a judge and it is common for court deadlines to be imposed which ignore bank holidays, office closures or annual leave.   So far as the judge is concerned, the obligation is on that law-firm, not on a particular solicitor and if they are unavailable, somebody else should step in.   The judge does sometimes ask people to give the court ‘dates to avoid’ when fixing hearings, but the listing office rarely appears to pay any regard to the dates submitted.

That attitude can cause expense to the parties:  often a different barrister needs to be appointed or if the regular solicitor is unavailable then work may need to be carried out by a lawyer unfamiliar with the case.   Good judges will try to avoid that happening and may give people longer than usual to comply so that the regular lawyer can do the work.

The judges may have concerns for the people in court and wish to cause them unnecessary expense, but that is less in evidence from the court administrative staff who do not always follow what the judge has directed or seem to completely ignore the ‘dates to avoid’.  They are under-staffed and under pressure, so they do what they can, rather than what perhaps they should.

Can I impose a deadline on my solicitor?

Yes – it is acceptable to solicitors for clients to ask for something to be done within a reasonable time.  The key word there is ‘reasonable’ and even when a solicitor agrees to do something, that is subject to having to respect those external deadlines which may change.

If a solicitor sees they will struggle to keep a promise, they should give an update as to when they will be likely to do what has been agreed.  That will not always be possible and if – for example an urgent application needs to be dealt with, that might take a few working days to handle.

Unless a client is paying a massive retainer for their solicitor to be exclusively available to them, the competing demands on time are inevitable, but do not diminish the solicitor’s dedication to getting you a fair outcome.

Does it need to be the solicitor I consulted / appointed do the work on my case?

No – many law-firms have teams of people and use that effectively to provide a well-considered and more cost-effective service whilst still being accountable to the clients.

A good team will have a mixture of skills and aptitudes.   The senior solicitor(s) on a team will have experience of that aspect of family law stretching back perhaps decades, so they will have encountered many kinds of problems and have the confidence of finding solutions.  They may have been the person who initially assessed the case and will continue to supervise and mentor the team to keep things on the right track.

The middle of the team is likely to be qualified solicitors who have already shown a talent for aspects of that kind of work, perhaps having very good financial knowledge or analytical skills or even an encyclopaedic knowledge of the Rules which means their case preparation is always on point.   They will be efficient at what they do and manage the day-to-day progress and communications with the client whenever legal knowledge may be required, especially of process.

The junior end of the team may be newly-admitted solicitors who are finding their niche, trainees who have shown promise with that kind of case or paralegals who may be part-qualified lawyers gaining experience before setting their sights on a career as a qualified lawyer.   The paralegal may be unqualified, but skilled at organising and completing forms possibly for editing in liaison with the clients where technical knowledge might not be needed.

A legal team should have a balance between those who can see the ‘big picture’, those who effectively process what needs to be done and those who can assist on a practical basis.   By using a combination of ‘fee-earners’ at levels of expense determined in accordance with experience/seniority, the client pays less in legal fees than if the work was done at an experience level higher than required to complete that aspect of the task.

What is a ‘fee-earner’?

A fee-earner is a member of staff in a law firm who does work on clients’ cases which is set out in the firm’s client-care letter/terms of business as being legal work that may progress a case and has been agreed to be proper to be charged for carrying out.   General administration, finance and suchlike are expected to be overheads for a law firm, as is secretarial work, but work that is delegated and ultimately supervised by a qualified lawyer may be ‘fee-earner’ work, albeit at a much lower cost than if done by the lawyer themselves.

What are the ‘units’ on my legal bills?

You will see ‘units’ on the work-log if your solicitor shows you what work has been done and does not give a general account with a total price.   Law firms who are transparent about legal expenses can supply a chronology of the work carried out in the period covered by the invoice.   If they do that, it will usually be expressed as ‘units’ rather than minutes of time.   A standard unit may have started out as 10 minutes i.e. one sixth of an hour, but most systems have standard units as 6 minutes i.e. 1/10 of an hour.    Rounding up to 10 minutes for any attention given to a case pre-dates the use of email, which in a very active case could involve 20 or more emails in an hour, say in the hours leading up to a hearing or engaged in intense negotiation.   At 20 x 10 minute units, which might involve one-line emails as well as longer communications, the client would be paying at least twice the agreed hourly rate.   Even with 6 minute units, as they are now, rounding up lots of quick email and charging the total units can be disproportionately expensive.   Contractual on their terms of business, but completely unfair in the perception of the client.

To mitigate the potential unfairness of standing by 1 unit per email in a period of intense activity, many law firms take the more ethical approach of looking at the time taken – the start and end point of the chain of email and reduce the units to that – so ten very quick emails began at 4.30 and concluded by 4.45 would be charged as 3 units – the 15 minutes being 2 x 6 plus part of another 6.   Checking the law-firm’s policy about their unit charging and asking for the actual time to be used would save money and is perfectly proper.

Many fee-earners will show some compassion for the person paying the bill and not insist on the full time spent.  They may show that expressly, by recording the additional units at zero-rate, they may add ‘but say’ and give a reduced time in their narrative or they may be silent about it yet record 1 unit for tasks that must obviously have taken more than 6 minutes.

Will challenging my invoice reduce my legal fees even if the work looks to have been done?

It takes time to check time-logs and/or explain them and that time may well exceed the item being questioned.   If there is a genuine reason why the client thinks something should not be charged or the charge should be less than invoiced, then that will not cause resentment as it is a proper enquiry.   No bad feeling will be caused and the lawyer will try to be more careful as to their invoices.   However, if a client challenges perfectly reasonable invoices simply to get a reduction for the firm to avoid sacrificing further time, it will be noted and the client cannot expect to get the level of discretion that they might otherwise have benefitted from.   Unreasonably challenging invoices may bring a short-term advantage, but will erode the good-will that is at the heart of compassionate billing.   Good law-firms have a lot of work and do not need clients who behave unfairly towards them when it comes to payment.   Far better a client asks for time to pay or to ask about how bills can be reduced than to cause bad feeling by seeking to pay less than was agreed.

Can I get assistance with my legal fees?

Generally, there is almost zero public funding (Legal Aid) for private law matters, but some people qualify for Help With Fees.   The Court Service website is the portal to check whether some reduction of the fee to issue family law applications might be possible.   In comparison with the expense of the lawyers, the reductions are modest, but it can be worth the effort if you check for yourself.

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