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How to choose a specialist solicitor?

Choosing a specialist

Relevant across multiple law types

All solicitors are the same, aren’t they? Not necessarily so.  Most solicitors tend to specialise these days in one particular area of law.

The law is such a complex beast, which is constantly changing and being updated, that it is impossible for most mortals to know all of it and keep themselves up to speed on all areas. This means that if the solicitor you are looking at claims to do a bit of everything that may be a cause for concern.

Also, different types of law involve different activities for solicitors which may impinge on the service that you get. Some solicitors specialising in litigation are out at court a lot which means that it may be very hard to get hold of them during the normal court day, typically between 10am and 4pm. That may be no bad thing because you may one day need them out at court on your case and someone who is busy in court a lot may well be a specialist in that area that you need.

On the other hand, someone doing conveyancing will rarely, if ever, appear in court so should be more freely available for you to speak to them during the day. But you would not want a conveyancer doing your divorce just because they happen to be more available.

As a general rule, it is best to find out what a solicitor's expertise is and chose someone with the expertise relevant to your case. Be wary of a “jack of all trades” – it is very difficult to have expertise in everything. Just because they are a solicitor doesn’t mean they will know as much about conveyancing as accident claims, for example.

So how do you know if a solicitor specialises in a given area? There are a number of sources of information:

Solicitors are members of the Law Society. That is effectively the solicitor’s trade union. It does not regulate solicitors, it promotes their interests and educates the public and politicians about the concerns of the legal profession, amongst other activities. However, it also has a useful website which allows you to search against solicitors’ names or the names of their firms and see what they say they specialise in.

That information is coming mainly from the solicitors themselves and is not vetted by the Law Society who disclaim any liability for it. Of course, just because a solicitor says they specialise in a certain area does not mean that they do so. The Law Society does have some accreditations which are more strictly vetted so, for example, if a solicitor says they are accredited by the Law Society for Clinical Negligence they will have had to pass some more stringent vetting in that area, and it is more likely that they are true specialists.

There are other accreditations around but be careful of some of them. Sometimes a solicitor will have been accredited to join someone’s panel just because they have paid an advertising fee. If any reliance is placed on the accreditation, Google it to find out what the solicitor needed to do to get the accreditation.

The Solicitors Regulation Authority (SRA) is the regulator for most solicitors. Some conveyancers, for example are regulated by The Licenced Conveyancers Council. But in short most solicitors will fall under SRA regulation. Again, the regulator has quite a good website where you can check a solicitor or their firm to find out a bit more about them. Additionally, you can also see whether the solicitor has been in trouble with their regulator and has been disciplined by them.

Regrettably there are a small number of members of the solicitor’s profession who are incompetent or downright dishonest and it is the SRA’s job to discipline those people, which can include striking them off and preventing them from practicing. But unfortunately, it is always the case that there will be a few rotten apples in any barrel so don’t just assume that because someone has the title Solicitor that they know what they are doing, and you are safe with them. A solicitor regulated by the SRA though will give you the benefit of having to be in a compulsory insurance and compensation scheme that should compensate you if something goes wrong. They will be required to meet certain professional standards set by the regulator.

You must not pass yourself off as a solicitor if you are not regulated. But unfortunately, there are a few people and organisations who try to do so. If in doubt check whether they are regulated, on the SRA website, and think carefully before using someone who gives the impression that they are a solicitor but is not regulated. You could be giving up some important protections.

The trouble with the Law Society and SRA websites is that the information you can get, while useful, is limited. If you want to know more about a solicitor or solicitors’ firm their website is probably the next port of call. Does it contain information relevant to the areas of law that you need help with? Are there articles and news pieces on it? Are those up to date (a website where last piece of news or commentary is dated 1999 may indicate a firm of solicitors whose knowledge is similarly outdated)?

Look at the profiles of the solicitors in the firm on their website – do they refer to specialisms? Do they cite examples of cases similar to yours where they have been able to help?

Awards can be useful indicators of expertise. It is possible to win legal awards simply by entering them, so award wins, in themselves, may not prove expertise. But it does show that the firm is probably interested in the area of law enough to fill in an award submission and enter it, which is a good start.

Positive press or other media comment is similar. If the firm has a lot of mentions in the media for its work in a given area that shows that they have some profile in it and are interested enough to speak to journalists about it.

There are other things that you can learn from the firm’s website or even social media engagement. Is it easy to understand and written in plain English? If it is the chances are that most of the firm’s communications are like that, so the legal advice you receive may be easier to understand. If the firm’s public communications are difficult to decipher and written in "legalese" it is possible that the advice you receive if you instruct them may be the same.

One of the big complaints about solicitors is that they sometimes do not express clearly in a way that their clients can easily follow. Part of that is because there is certain legal phrases and shorthand which most solicitors understand to mean something, but clients may not. Part of the skill of a good solicitor is getting to the heart of the client’s problem then setting the clients options out in a clear and comprehensible way.

So, solicitors communication skills are almost as important as their legal skill. There is no point in hiring the most expert lawyer in the world if you can’t understand what they are telling you or they can’t be bothered to ask you what you are trying to achieve.

As well as looking at websites it is worth testing this by ringing or emailing the solicitor’s firm. Do they respond to your calls? How easy are they to get hold of? Are they friendly or approachable on the phone? Can you understand their emails and are they professional (it is unlikely that they will be able to achieve great things for you if preliminary emails, for example, are misspelt or misdirected)?

If you don’t feel comfortable with the solicitor or solicitors’ firm and their style of communication it may be very difficult to work with them to resolve your legal problem, so check these things out before you instruct them. If they won’t engage with you when you are at the stage of making initial enquiries that probably tells you all that you need to know.