Solicitors are fat cats. They deserve to be undermined…

The reason I became a solicitor is nondescript and boring – it seemed like a good idea at the time.  Frankly, I have become more cynical, but strangely more idealistic as I have grown older, and seen more.  That strange principle, of what it means to be a professional, separates me from those whose only motive is to make money – with no overwhelming and overriding principle of responsibility.

 

Perhaps it is being a parent.  Or perhaps it is having the knowledge that you are told so much in confidence, in complete trust, by people who are vulnerable by imparting such information, let alone by the circumstances that brought them to you.  You are the last bastion of truth and honesty before the marketers get their way.

 

But we are also businesses – we no longer have a monopoly of being service providers.  And I am told that this is because solicitors are fat cats (don’t make me choke, if I rented a house I would be on housing benefit and that would bring in more).  And because solicitors are the establishment.  Such establishment needs competition.  Competition is good, competition makes us thrive.

 

Except, it is not a level playing field. There are some activities that are not restricted to solicitors only – activities like will writing and estate management – both of whom I would suggest do ask for a high level of trust and confidence not only in the skill concerned, but also in putting the customer first.  There is a huge amount of regulation that a solicitors firm has to comply with, not only in relation to client money, but also in relation to good behaviour of the individuals (outside their working hours) and there is a standard by which they can be judged – even passing the standard by a very small amount does not mean you have come away looking good – being called to account in itself is potentially damaging, and something that most law firms will try to avoid.

All modern law work is about risk assessment for the solicitor – either risk of getting it wrong, risk of appearing not to do the right thing, risk of overcharging, risk of having a complaint made against you.  And that’s all well and good – we should be kept on our toes.  But…  here’s the rub – not all people providing legal services are bound to the same standards.  If you choose an unregulated body to do the work for you, then you may be in the unfortunate position that you cannot complain that the charges are too high (look in the small print of the glossy charges brochure) or that the service is too slow (who are you to say what is slow?) or that you think they have not done their best to sell your auntie’s house – they virtually gave it away – it was worth far more! or that they never kept you informed (after all, you are the one that gets the proceeds of the estate in the long run.

 

How is it that unregulated companies manage to sell their service in this way, calling themselves “almost solicitors” and yet are not obliged to abide by certain professional standards?  Everyone from the establishment agrees on how to play fair, and makes an effort to give the customer the benefit of the doubt in all things, and yet…

Is it the pricing?  Solicitors have been charging by the hour for a long time – because that is one of the ways of working out how long something will take – how much work you have to put in, means the fee is commensurate with the job concerned.  Solicitors should give an indication of how much it is likely to be for each stage of the work – there is an estimate of costs for you.

Would customers prefer that every little detail is written down and added to the bill?  So that they know the price of every single step?  Having recently seen the third party disbursements brochure for a non regulated business, I can see all sorts of things that I just bundle into the price of doing the job.  And consider them essential in order to do the correct job for the client.  There is no way that I could cut the corner, then blame the client on the basis that “you didn’t want me to do that search, so I didn’t do it, and lo and behold, look at what a pile of mess you are in”.  The search is an essential part of the transaction, without which you have not correctly advised.  Interpretation of the search is my job, and advising on it.

What is it like for the customer?  Do customer’s seriously like a contract that is followed by pages and pages of sub-costs for this that and the other?  Trouble is – if you are paying for work from an unregulated body, you can’t complain anyway!  How is that remotely fair for the public, who can’t be expected to know what sort of expenses are involved.  If replacing the engine oil is a necessary part of my car service, as the current oil is drained to reach the part that needs replacing, am I happy with the thought that the service is £200, plus oil drainage fee, plus environmental disposal fee, plus 6 litres of fresh oil, plus an oil gauge testing fee?  (you can tell I know absolutely nothing about how much oil is needed for a car…    You might as well charge me the amount it will actually cost you, rather than adding on spurious details that make it seem like you had to do more…

*cough*  This has turned into something of a rant.  Partly because it seems so damn unfair  – how does the public know what they are buying?  And how do they know the difference between a regulated person and someone who is not?  How do they have any idea of how vulnerable they are, if the service is not good, or the product is substandard?  To whom do they turn?  Just have a quick word with the Legal Ombudsman, as I did, and you will find that they cannot be turned to, if the will writer is not an “approved person”.

 

Being a solicitor is for me about trying (I am human, so I fail, hopefully not too often) to do the right thing, the legally correct thing, and to use the law to protect and serve the interests of those who do not know the law, but have other excellent reasons for needing assistance.  When I come up against people whose main ethos is to make money and to push customers in at one end and relieve them of their money at the other end, without regard for the actual person, that offends me.  I told you I have got more idealistic as I’ve had more experience…

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Fixed fee or by the hour?

Some people think that solicitors charging for their time is a bit old fashioned. There is a huge move towards the commoditisation of legal services – so that, rather like Tesco, you buy something off the shelf. This is greatly to be praised – it means the customer can see what they get and be able to compare services.

The difficulty comes when you compare a retail item to a service and a skill. If you want a T-Shirt, do you get it from Tesco, Gap, or somewhere designer? What is it about the T-Shirt buying experience, or the product that you buy that appeals? The good quality? The cheap item that you need before heading to the beach? The one with the special label that means you are exclusive and/or you look more attractive?

When you think about other trades – plumbers, electricians, mechanics, gardeners – then they also charge for their skills on the basis of how long it will take. Some charge a combination – a call out fee with one hour included.

What’s the worst thing about fees being charged on the basis of the time that is spent? Not knowing where you are. And being faced with a huge bill. And how large a bill depends sometimes on what you are used to. And what you think the job is worth.

I’d like to run a survey – how should your solicitor charge?