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Choosing a Lawyer

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Choosing your Lawyer

Finding the lawyer who is right for you is always a challenge. If you have used a lawyer before, were happy with their service, but they don't practice in the area of law you need - ask them to refer you to someone who does. There may be someone in the same firm who can handle your case.

Lawyers tend to recommend each other more on the basis of their respect for their legal ability and results they achieve for their clients. They tend to put less emphasis on the availability, affability, prominence or cost of the lawyer.

You may know one or more lawyers socially. If you feel confident about them based on your past interactions, meet with them. If you don't know a lawyer socially, or if you do but feel it inappropriate to become professionally involved with that lawyer, then look to other sources. Lawyers often feel uncomfortable acting on behalf of close friends or relatives, so do not be offended if they refuse to become involved.

The best source of names is referrals from someone whose judgment you trust. This can be another professional advisor such as an accountant or a friend who has had similar legal issues in the past. Ask if they were satisfied with their lawyer.

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The Law Institute of Victoria has a free Legal Referral Service, where you can select a lawyer based on their area of law, language and suburb.

Advertising, including on the internet, local paper or yellow pages provides another source of names. Advertising will also often give you an indication of areas of practice of the lawyer. Bear in mind that these are advertisements and not recommendations.

Meet with the lawyer who you have in mind and discuss your situation. Do not assume that "the first interview is free", only some lawyers offer this and then usually this only for particular types of work and is subject to condition. If you feel comfortable with the person, ask for a time and fee estimate. Once you have found someone with whom you are comfortable who will charge you a price you think is appropriate, you have found your lawyer

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What do Lawyers cost?

Lawyers charge for their services in different ways. Most matters will be charged on an hourly rate or by a flat fee.

Hourly rates are usually higher for more experienced lawyers. However a lower hourly rate doesn't necessarily mean a lower bill. An experienced lawyer may not have to "reinvent the wheel" and may be able to charge less by being more efficient. Senior lawyers may also make use of junior lawyers or paralegals within the law firm to help keep your costs down in appropriate cases.

Flat fees are common for standard items such as an incorporation, real estate mortgage or purchase or sale, uncontested divorce or basic contracts.

In addition to time charges lawyers charge for all expenses incurred on your behalf. GST is payable on legal services.

In most cases you can be expected to be asked for a cash retainer (deposit) before the work commences. This retainer will be put in the lawyer's trust account unless you give written directions to the contrary. You will typically be asked to replenish the retainer as more work is done, bills are issued and money is used up.

The Professional Conduct Rules require a solicitor as soon as practicable after first taking instructions from a client to provide to the client written advice as to the reasonably estimated range of costs and disbursements the client may incur by pursuing the legal activity and the method of calculation of those costs.

You need to be aware that these are estimates only. Contentious matters can be truly wild and unpredictable. It's hard to budget for a war. You also need to weigh up the likelihood of success, the potential net benefits, time and personal factors. If your lawyer doesn't communicate well with you on these issues, then you should initiate the discussion.

Do all lawyers charge the same?

No. If there is a big difference between costs that two lawyers estimate, then the odds are that there is not much difference between their hourly fee rate. (Ask them to find out).

Usually the difference reflects that they are not 'comparing apples with apples'. They may not be including the same services, they may be quoting for the fees to different stages of a case or transaction or one may have more experience and be more knowledgeable about the difficulties that usually occur in such cases.

Also, if one is charging slightly more, it may reflect that they are very experienced and therefore dearer. Or that they usually offer a higher level of service, such as letters or emails to keep you more up-to-date with what is going on.

Legal Aid

Advice and Support Services and Legal Aid services provide information, advice, representation, mediation and other legal help. The type and amount of help you will get depends on your finances, your legal problem and their limited resources.

You can apply for legal aid directly to Legal Aid, or if you wish to be represented by a particular private lawyer, through that person's office.

Lawyers will sometimes agree to work on a No Win - No Fee basis. They may also work with a Litigation Funder who will lend you the money for the Lawyer.

There is more information about this on Foolkit's Tools pages Legal Aid Funding and Community Legal Assistance.

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Big Firms or Small Firms

Law firms in Australia are generally smaller than those in USA or UK or on TV or in the movies. While there are relatively few large firms, they employ a disproportionately larger number of lawyers.

As a rough rule of thumb, the larger firm lawyers work on more specialised and larger cases. They may offer a higher level of service, greater depth of expertise and may prefer to work for particular types of clients (insurance companies rather than injured people; employers rather than employees). Canadian Lawyer's 2010 legal fees survey found that larger firms charged much more than small firms for similar work. The large firms have many clients who are willing to pay those fees.

On the other hand there are many lawyers with the same experience and expertise in the smaller firms. In a smaller firm there is probably more likelihood that each lawyer has experience across a number of different areas of the law.

Which ever type of firm you go to, ask the particular lawyer who you see about their experience with your type of case and what sort of approach they use. Do not make assumptions merely on the basis of the way the lawyer talks or looks.