How Best to Manage your Lawyer

Every business, no matter how large or how small, leaves a “legal footprint” – so if you operate without any legal advice at all, you do so at your peril!

It’s no coincidence that it’s those who claim to be able to function without legal advice who often end up with the biggest problems!  And whilst there might be a perception that lawyers should be avoided at all cost as they are simply too expensive, with careful planning it is perfectly possible to achieve the best of both worlds – receiving the best advice whilst keeping costs to a minimum.

So how can this be achieved?  Here are the top tips to assist you in achieving this  objective:-

  1. Always appoint an Expert

Healthcare is a very specialised area of law and not one which is on the radar of the vast majority of lawyers.  Your personal solicitor is highly unlikely to know anything about it – and to receive appropriate advice therefore you need to source an expert.  Whilst costs are always high up on the radar, it is a false economy to appoint a non-specialist; not only are they likely to take more time to produce an answer to your enquiry – but it might not be the right answer!  And your costs may well increase on account of the additional research or referrals that need to be made.  You certainly don’t want to be a “guinea-pig” – and there is no substitute for experience.

Make sure the individual Expert you select is part of a business with the back up resources to provide the wider advice you’re likely to require.  Be aware that, just like clinicians, lawyers practice within an area of specialty – and a real estate lawyer will not personally be best placed to advise you on, for example, an employment law issue. Your business will be best served by appointing a firm which has specialisms covering a broad range of healthcare law, to enable you to benefit from “joined up thinking” meaning (hopefully) nothing will fall between the cracks!

Whilst a well intentioned colleague might be keen to make a recommendation, they might not be best placed to judge whether their advice was the most appropriate or not on the basis  “you don’t know what you don’t know!”.  Independent research therefore is usually the safer way forward and the legal directories (Chambers and Legal 500) can be very useful, as they provide an independent “peer assessed” review of specialists in the field.  And once you’ve established some names through this route, any practical experience a colleague has to offer of dealing with that particular expert  could provide a useful backup.

  1. Don’t leave it to the last minute!

Don’t risk small incidents blowing up into a crisis by failing to take advice at an early stage.  And even in a non-dispute situation, be aware that the legal process may not follow what you assume to be a logical or “common sense” path.  There are many hidden traps which will not be apparent from the surface which, if you haven’t resolved them in advance, you’ll be living with for many years ahead.

It is a wise precaution to have an on-going account with your lawyer, which will enable you to pick up the phone and seek advice at a moment’s notice, thereby allowing you to run decisions pass them at an early stage.  This will also enable your lawyer to have a better understanding of new developments within the context of your business overall.

An early approach therefore will put you in the best position to structure your case in the most appropriate way – even if it results in you being advised to come back later!

  1. Understand the Terms of Engagement

Before providing any advice, your lawyer is required to send you a Client Care Letter which clearly sets out their terms of engagement.  This should identify the personnel dealing with your case (by name and job description/status).  Don’t always expect to deal with a partner as the more work that can be undertaken at a more junior level, the lower your costs should be.

The letter should also set out the extent of the advice to be provided.  You shouldn’t assume the advice will cover anything more than specified  – unless you specifically agree this later.  So, for example, if the terms provide for advice on your acquisition of a business, don’t assume this will automatically extend to employment law advice concerning your intention to subsequently change the contractual employment terms of the staff.

  1. Fees

You should also be provided with not only the hourly charge out rate of the individuals concerned, but also with an estimate of the overall time/cost that may be spent on your case.  If you are unclear about anything don’t be afraid to ask!

If a “fixed fee” is proposed, clarify whether this is “fixed” as an absolute figure (even if the case does not proceed all the way) or whether it is “capped”.  And if it is fixed, and the case is indeed concluded, check whether there is any prospect of an additional charge being levied if it has taken longer than expected.

Whilst it is natural for a consumer to want to secure a “good deal”, if you try to screw your fees down to a bare minimum, it is bound to impact upon the level of advice provided.  In fact, you should be wary of a “fixed” fee which is absolute, as it’s human nature that once the “budgeted” figure has been reached, there may be a natural tendency for those involved to want to “wrap it up” as quickly as possible thereafter, even though it might not be in your best interests to do so.

  1. Be organised

The more of your lawyer’s time you can save by careful preparation, the quicker you will receive the advice required – and the more cost effective it is likely to be!

Before receiving any advice, every client has to undergo anti-money laundering and “conflict” checks.   Make sure the originals of your passport and two utility bills bearing your name and current home address are readily available – and if you have moved recently enquire what else would be acceptable as evidence of your identity.

Your lawyer may ask you to transfer funds as “cost on account” – so have the funds available to do so.

Prepare a resume of the nature of your case with as much supporting documentation as possible – and present it in a coherent order!  Failure to provide your lawyer with the material required in a timely fashion is bound to have an adverse impact upon you, whether this results in additional costs – or even the collapse of your case entirely!  There may be time limits which are imposed by third parties which impact upon your dealings and which cannot be moved.

Be aware that anything legal is likely to generate a wealth of paperwork – or digital attachments.  Of course your lawyer will retain a copy, but the more organised you can be as your case progresses the less likelihood there will be of misunderstandings/missed opportunities arising.

  1. Communication

Don’t expect your lawyer to be a mind reader!  Make sure you let them have every piece of information available to you, as something which may appear to be of minor significance to you may be of major importance to your case.   Allow your lawyer to filter what is relevant and what is less so.

When you communicate with your lawyer, try to prepare what you need to say in advance – and avoid “ping-pong” emails, not least as they will add to the cost!   And whilst we all live in an electronic age, sometimes there is simply no substitute for a “face to face” meeting – albeit this may take place by Skype rather than sitting in the same room.  It can often be more cost effective than a lengthy series of email exchanges – and very often points arise during the course of discussion which would not surface in an electronic exchange.

  1. Be commercial

Be aware that you, rather than your lawyer, are the decision maker, although you are likely to base this upon the advice you receive.  You should not expect your lawyer to make the decision for you – or criticise them for failing to do so!  And try not to allow emotion to influence the decision you take.  Remember that the law is based on a history of legislation and case law rather than emotion – and if your lawyer advises you to let something go, there is no doubt a very good reason behind it.

And if the advice you receive is not what you want to hear – don’t shoot the messenger!

  1. Annual Health Check

Have an annual health check.  You expect to meet with your Accountants at least once a year and inevitably your discussion will range beyond the scope of your accounts and into the realms of your business planning.  If you adopt a similar policy with your lawyer, not only will this enable your plans to be achieved in a more timely fashion, but you are more likely to avoid the pitfalls that could otherwise arise.

Most importantly, don’t be afraid to have an ongoing relationship with your lawyer.  Until you know them better, your reaction might be to regard all lawyers as sharks – but they won’t bite – honestly!