Finding a lawyer
On the Board and Commissioner’s website (www.lsbc.vic.gov.au) there is a register of all the Victorian lawyers and law practices that provide legal services.
Solicitors may advertise their services in any media, but many do not advertise their fees. While a number of solicitors operate general practices, many others practise in particular areas of law, within firms that offer clients a range of services.
It can be difficult to identify the best solicitor to help you. However, any legal aid organisation (see How legal aid can help, and Legal services that can help) or the Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) can refer you to general and specialist lawyers. Particularly useful is LIV’s Find a Lawyer Legal Referral Service (for more information, see www.liv.asn.au/find-a-lawyer).
In the Yellow Pages (either online or in print) under “solicitors” you can search for a lawyer by location. You should obtain an estimate of the total costs before instructing a lawyer to act for you.
LIV accredits specialist solicitors in a number of areas – including criminal, family, environmental and planning, tax, commercial tenancy, business, property, wills and estates, mediation, commercial litigation, personal injury, workplace relations, immigration, costs, administrative and children’s law. To become accredited as a specialist, a solicitor must have at least five years’ experience in the relevant area and pass specified examinations.
There are a number of things you can do to prepare for your first meeting with your lawyer:
• check the cost of the initial meeting and how long it will take;
• check that the lawyer has experience or specialises in the area of your legal matter;
• write down the details of your legal problem (e.g. what happened, when it happened and who was there);
• make copies of any documents that may be relevant to your legal matter;
• write down the questions you want to ask your lawyer;
• write down the outcome you hope to achieve in your legal matter;
• if you feel it would be helpful, arrange for a friend, relative or support person to go with you to your first meeting; and
• if you need one, arrange for an interpreter to attend the meeting.
Your first meeting with your lawyer is your opportunity to establish the kind of relationship that you want to have with your lawyer, and to clarify the expectations on both sides. It helps if you:
• ask about costs (or legal aid if you need financial assistance – see How legal aid can help);
• write down what is said;
• give the lawyer a copy of the notes you have prepared and the documents you have copied;
• respond clearly to questions your lawyer asks you;
• ask your lawyer questions if you don’t understand something or want to know what you need to do;
• ask your lawyer to explain any legal terms you don’t understand;
• ask your lawyer what options exist to deal with your legal matter and what they recommend;
• tell your lawyer of any concerns you have about your personal safety;
• ask your lawyer what happens next and how long it may take to deal with your legal matter; and
• tell your lawyer that you want to be informed about progress and be involved in decision-making at all stages.
If you are not sure you want to employ the lawyer after your first meeting, it is important to tell them to not do any more work until you specifically instruct them to go ahead. If you decide to not proceed with the lawyer, you should advise them of your decision as soon as possible, preferably in writing.
After your first meeting, your lawyer must give you a costs disclosure document (i.e. a document that outlines all the costs involved in your case), unless they believe the costs will be less than $750 (excluding GST and disbursements; see “How a solicitor charges”).
Even if you decide after the first meeting that you do not wish to employ the lawyer, they can still charge you for that meeting and for the time taken to read any documents you gave them.
The success of your relationship with your lawyer depends on good communication and maintaining trust and confidence in each other. It helps if you:
• take notes of what your lawyer tells you;
• keep those notes and all letters and documents sent to you by your lawyer together in a file or folder;
• tell your lawyer if any of your contact or other details change;
• ask your lawyer questions if you don’t understand what has happened or what will happen next;
• don’t wait for your lawyer to contact you. Phone them if you have a question, and don’t be put off until you receive an answer. Keep in mind that your lawyer can charge you for time spent talking to you, so it is important to be clear about what information you need;
• (if your legal matter involves the prospect of going to court) ask your lawyer what it means if you agree to “settle” your legal matter instead of going to court (and what this means for your legal costs); and
• ask your lawyer if your costs are likely to increase from the original estimate they gave you – note that your lawyer must inform you about any significant changes to the legal costs that you will need to pay.
Lawyers, like any other service providers, have obligations to the people who use their services. Lawyers’ obligations are imposed in legislation and conduct rules. For example, solicitors are obliged to:
• act in your best interests when representing you;
• follow your lawful instructions;
• complete legal work on your behalf competently, diligently and as promptly as reasonably possible;
• provide a detailed (or itemised) bill within 21 days of you asking for one (provided you asked for a detailed bill within 30 days of receiving the lump sum bill);
• generally not borrow money from you;
• in certain circumstances, decline to work for you where a conflict of interest might arise;
• give you clear and timely advice to assist you to understand relevant legal issues and to make informed choices about those issues and the costs involved;
• provide, in writing, the basis on which your legal costs will be calculated and an estimate of your total legal costs (unless those costs, excluding GST and disbursements, are unlikely to exceed $750).
Solicitors also have obligations imposed on them in relation to their practising certificate, the financial aspects of their practice and, in particular, on the handling of trust money (i.e. money held on behalf of other people). There are stringent requirements in relation to the receipting, banking, record-keeping and auditing of trust accounts. Solicitors are prohibited from receiving money on behalf of clients who use false names, and from drawing cash from clients’ trust accounts.
Obligations are also imposed by the market in which lawyers operate: if you are dissatisfied you can take your business elsewhere. However, this is not always possible or practical because many disputes arise in the middle of a matter (e.g. before a court action has reached a hearing or before conveyancing is completed). Note that a new lawyer will be reluctant to take on a case halfway through without seeing the previous lawyer’s file, so they can find out precisely what steps have already been taken. A lawyer can claim a “lien” over any deed, paper, or personal chattel of yours, which means a lawyer can retain your file until you pay their bill.