Here at ContractStore we want you to be able to protect your business effectively for less. We publish contract templates so you can understand what to think about in business dealings, but we always encourage you to seek legal advice if there is anything you aren’t sure about.
Run by lawyers, we also know the inside story on how lawyers will help you if you do need one.
Here are our top guidelines for getting the most out of your relationship with your lawyer.
Take legal advice sooner rather than later.
Although legal advice can be expensive – and some hints on controlling legal fees appear later in this blog post – you can often save money, both for your company and in legal fees, if you get advice early on and not leave it too late. You may think you are a dab hand at negotiating contracts but are your drafting skills really as good as you think? Solicitors are trained to write in unambiguous English – believe it or not – and to consider the potential risks when looking at a contract. So for any contract, especially one of real potential value to your company, do get it checked by a professional before it is signed.
And when a dispute is looming, do not put your head in the sand and hope it may go away – get some independent legal advice early on: solicitors can help avoid disputes and manage problems as well as litigate if all else fails. And, internally, make sure that any large contract is being monitored – not just run by an individual, however senior, but overseen by the board: all too often a dispute with a supplier can escalate because the manager most closely involved is trying to protect their position. And in a large group, they may not appreciate how widespread the damage could be for their employer if one major supplier or customer falls out with the company. Getting legal advice is one way of keeping problems under surveillance – and under control.
Here is a real life example:
A designer teamed up with an acquaintance to produce a new product. An agreement was written without any legal advice, and signed. It was riddled with ambiguities and unclear as to who was responsible for what.
A dispute then broke out between the two sides and after some acrimonious correspondence, one of the parties – who had done almost nothing to progress the project and who had no serious basis for a claim – issued proceedings in the county court claiming several thousand pounds.
Still no lawyers were involved. The defendant failed to respond to the claim in the time specified by the court and so judgement was awarded against him. Only then did the defendant get some legal advice and, eventually, the judgement was overturned and he recovered some of his costs.
But the dispute meant that neither side was on speaking terms with the other and the business relationship that might have benefited both sides was soured and in consequence they both lost money.
- If a solicitor had been asked to advise on, if not draft, the original agreement before it was signed, there would have been a more clearly worded contract that could have prevented the dispute from arising in the first place.
- Even if no lawyer had been involved at the contract stage, had the defendant gone to a lawyer before the proceedings were issued, a letter from that lawyer to the claimant could have made it clear that the claim was a spurious one and a settlement could have been achieved.
- And if the defendant had gone to a lawyer when he received the county court claim he could have filed an effective defence and argued his case in court with effective professional advice.
So, at each one of three stages, legal advice would have been worth paying for and it would have been quite cheap – just a few hours of the solicitor’s time.
Select the right firm
Solicitors, even in smaller firms, tend to specialise, so if you need legal advice, look for someone who deals with the right subject. While a long-term relationship between solicitor and client can be useful, do not feel you need to use the same firm for all your work. Larger companies often use a range of law firms – which keeps the lawyers on their toes as well as giving the client access to different specialist providers.
Recommendation is how most solicitors get their clients. If nobody recommends the right firm to you, there are plenty of directories, e.g. Legal 500 and Chambers and, of course, the internet, with websites like Lawyer Locator – and The Law Society (www.lawsociety.org.uk) has a full listing of solicitors by name, specialism and location.
Unless the work is going to need a really large team of lawyers, look at the small and medium size firms before you look at the big boys. Not only are their fees likely to be less, but the service is likely to be more personal with more partner involvement. Large law firm are a bit like grand hotels – impressive foyers, lots of staff and outrageously expensive even for small things. At the end of the day if what you want is friendly, personal service and a comfortable bed, you don’t need the Savoy or the Ritz.
The smaller the firm, the smaller the team is a rough rule of thumb. While, for example, a joint venture for a construction project might be handled by one experienced solicitor in a niche firm, it could involve members of both the construction and commercial departments of a large practice. And while assistant solicitors in large firms may be bright and technically competent, they often do not have the wider commercial view or experience which a client needs.
Generally speaking, the bigger the firm, the higher the fees. A partner in a large City firm may have a charge-out rate of £500 or more, a smaller firm in the London area £300 and a sole practitioner or a medium to small firm in the provinces less than £200. While you will see less of the partner in the big firm, their team approach is still likely to make the large firm more expensive than the smaller one. A few tips:
- When discussing your requirements, find out how the work is to be handled – the number and skills of lawyers concerned
- Get a firm price and timetable: solicitors do not like fixed fees but they have to give you an estimate and some limits on time and cost, plus regular reporting can be important.
- If you want legal advice when your business is bidding for a project, try to negotiate a discounted and/or capped price with the law firm, probably with a success fee if you win the bid.
- Don’t feel intimidated by the surroundings – solicitors negotiate just like other trades – or even grand hotels!
Give the lawyer clear instructions
First, work out what you want your lawyer to do for you. You may not be entirely clear before the first meeting, but quite often that will be a preliminary session and you may not be charged for it.
Then remember that as a general rule you will paying for the solicitor’s time – most law firms record time in units of 6 minutes.
Once you are clear as to your requirements:
- Give the lawyer a written summary of the transaction and the aspects on which you need advice.
- Arrange to meet the person who will handle your work if it is not the partner you dealt with initially: the solicitor client relationship does matter.
- Agree what service you will be getting and confirm it in writing: if you want a broad overview of a complex contract rather than a line by line commentary, or advice on only the intellectual property aspects of a transaction, make this clear – it can have a big impact on the fees.
- Hand over copies of all relevant documents and correspondence, notes of meetings etc in chronological order.
- Don’t hand over a box of files and then complain if it takes your solicitor a week to sort out the papers.
- Establish a sensible timetable for the work. Solicitors are busy people and need time to look after you properly.
- Do some preparatory work – if, say, you want a contract prepared, websites like ContractStore.com offer free checklists and low cost templates.
- Get legal advice sooner rather than later. If you leave it too late before getting legal advice it is quite likely to cost more than if you got some advice early on. Also, your solicitor needs to be adequately prepared and not asked to attend a difficult meeting without knowing the background.
- And when you instruct a solicitor, remember it is in confidence and he/she needs to know the downside as well as the upside: holding back information, especially if a dispute is looming, is unwise – your solicitor needs to be prepared properly to deal with the job.
Your solicitor will usually send a client care letter to confirm