This article provides some basic advice on how to go about choosing a solicitor, including how to prepare for an initial meeting with a solicitor to decide whether they are suitable.
Sources of guidance
There are many ways to go about finding and choosing a solicitor, but here are some of the best:
Recommendation – as with most things, a recommendation can be best, and if you know someone who has been through a divorce, they may recommend their solicitor to you. Bear in mind, however, that just because the person recommending their solicitor had a good experience it does not mean that you will too. Similarly if someone warns you against using the solicitor they used it is a good indication that you should avoid that particular solicitor.
The problem with finding a good solicitor is that 'good' is subjective and if you ask for recommendations two people will have very differing views. Some people think a Rottweiler solicitor who fights for every detail is desirable even though it is likely to do irreparable damage to long-term family relations. In a family law context you want to achieve a solution which works for everyone rather than an all-out ‘win’ which the adversarial system traditionally provides.
To do this a solicitor needs to be assertive and clear on what your needs are and how to meet them without being pushy or disrespectful to the other side. It is also important that they help their clients understand what will happen in court. It isn't a lawyer's job to make all the decisions and the best lawyers educate their clients in family cases so that they can give instruction effectively.
Resolution – Resolution is the association of family lawyers who are "committed to the constructive resolution of family disputes". Resolution members follow a Code of Practice which "promotes a non-confrontational approach to family problems". Resolution keeps a directory of members on its website, which can be searched by postcode, name, town or firm.
Accreditation – another method of finding expertise in your particular area of law is by finding a solicitor who is an accredited specialist. Accredited specialists generally have to have a certain amount of experience doing their type of work and have to undergo an assessment to demonstrate their expertise. Resolution operates an accreditation scheme, and a directory of their accredited specialists, along with their particular specialisms, is on their website. The other accreditation scheme is run by the Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA), which has several schemes, including general family law specialists and specialists in child matters. The Law Society lists all solicitors in its Find a Solicitor section on its website, and that will tell you whether a particular solicitor is a member of an SRA accreditation scheme.
Legal Aid – if you require and qualify for legal aid then you will need to instruct a firm which deals with legal aid work. Community Legal Advice has a directory of all legal aid firms on their website - you can search by town/postcode, or by name, and should specify the relevant area of law, i.e., 'Family'.
All firms offering a legal aid service must meet certain quality standards, and there is also “Lexcel”, the Law Society's practice management standard. These standards are mainly to do with the way that the firm is run rather than the quality of its advice, but do offer certain benefits to clients, such as better customer service and procedures to reduce mistakes.
If you want to be thorough you can check a solicitor's record at the Solicitors Regulation Authority website, to see if he or she has been found to have broken a rule of professional conduct, although the information only goes back to January 2008.
Draw up a shortlist of the solicitors of your choice and try ringing them to see what sort of response you get. Most firms of solicitors will offer an initial interview (usually limited to 30 minutes) either for free or for a fixed fee of, say, £50. Schedule meetings and briefly discuss with them the situation you are in. Use these interviews not just to get some cheap advice but also to gauge whether you will be happy to instruct that solicitor to act for you - there is no obligation to instruct a solicitor just because you have had a free or fixed fee interview. If you do not feel comfortable discussing your details at this stage, the chances are you won’t feel confident discussing more intimate details of your case with him at a later date. Feel free to ask questions, especially about their experience in divorce settlements. From their answers, you should be able to glean the extent of knowledge they have on the subject.
Take this opportunity to know more about the solicitor and/or the company, which he represents. How long has he been specialising in family law work? What are his experience and specialisms: child contact, ancillary relief, etc? Generally, you will only find this out by asking, unless the information is on the firm's website. Find out if the solicitor can also act as a mediator and what other services his firm can provide.
These factors are important if other aspects such as businesses or trusts will be affected in the divorce proceedings. While at the interview, do not be embarrassed to ask about their legal fees and the other costs your case will entail. Ask about how they expect you to pay them (whether it’s a set amount per month, or a bill at the end, for example). Large firms usually have a prepared brochure in which their services; payment terms and appropriate charges are listed. Read this thoroughly and if there are items that you do not understand, ask that these be explained further. Be open about your budget and your requirements.
To get the most out of the first appointment many people will prepare a brief chronology of their case and a list of questions to ask the solicitor. If you are seeking advice on child support and/or financial/property matters it will also be useful to take with you to the appointment a brief summary of your income, outgoings and capital, including pensions. This can be particularly useful where there are many issues to cover in a short space of time, such as divorce, arrangements for children and the financial/property settlement, and can avoid important matters being overlooked. Remember that the solicitor does not know the details of your case, so it is up to you to inform him of all the facts.
Other documents to take with you to the first meeting might include any papers that you have received from the court, any letters that you have received from your spouse's solicitor and your marriage certificate, if you wish to instruct the solicitor to commence divorce proceedings on your behalf. It would also be useful to take evidence of your identity too, if you think you may instruct the solicitor to act for you - the solicitor will require two forms of identity (one with a photo, such as a passport, and a recent one giving your address, such as a utility bill), to comply with money laundering rules.
Here are some questions you might ask your solicitor at the first meeting:
· How much will it cost to deal with your case?
· How long will it take to complete the case?
· Might you be eligible for legal aid?
· Does it make any difference if your spouse divorces you?
· Are your rights affected if you leave the matrimonial home?
· What factors affect arrangements for the children?
· What factors affect the financial/property settlement?
Normally, you can determine which solicitor would be best for you after your meeting. There really are no hard and fast rules in determining who can best represent you. It’s normally based on your gut feelings. If you feel that you can trust the solicitor and are confident that he can do a good job for you then hire him. But if you have a nagging doubt about his capabilities or feel uncomfortable with him, then it’s best to consider other solicitors.