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Practice Tip: A lawyer got it right

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16th Feb 2005
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I had to consult a lawyer recently. Not about a client, and not as a disbursement cost, or even on an expense deductible issue. I needed some personal advice. It's sobering to spend one's hard earned cash on getting other people's opinion when you are used to the reverse.

The experience was more interesting because the issue was one on which, inevitably, I was unsure of the facts. And because it was outside my usual field of work I did not know the practitioners in the area.

I tried a firm I have used before to see if they could help. They're good, they're local, and their fee structure felt about right from past experience. But there was an issue. They only had one person who knew about the issue, and I could not have a meeting for three weeks because of work and holiday commitments. Having decided to part with a reasonable amount to buy advice I admit my timescale for gratification was quite short. They fell by the wayside.

I decided on a different approach. I tried a large regional firm who I had never used, but had once seen in action on the other side of a deal and had been impressed by.

The fee rate was higher. At least 40% higher. But an appointment could be had at the time I wanted. They went out of their way to ensure that the meeting could be fitted in.

A 15 minute pre meeting discussion by phone was held. It was obvious he chap the other end had a grasp of the facts and could analyse them.

A response by email to the appointment followed almost immediately after the call was completed.

The submission of a briefing note by me gave rise to a further response to say it would be read before the meeting so that we could concentrate on the issues.

And at the meeting it was obvious that the paper had been read. There was a willingness to assume all parties knew why they were there, and what they wanted. Appropriate copies of documents to support the case the lawyer was making were available, pre marked to be referred to, and copies were provided on request to take away to reflect upon.

There was no attempt made to provide more service than the brief had asked for, but the offer to develop a continuing relationship was made. I was left in the driving seat. My wishes were respected, and there was a clear willingness to recognise what I had done and could do for myself, with a willingness being offered just to fill the gaps.

At the end of the meeting I was given the chance, in effect, to walk away and say "that was a waste of time". I am sure it has happened. It won't with me. I am aware I spent more than I planned. I came away feeling I had got value for money. So I had to ask why?

There were three reasons:

1) everything about the service, from first call, to email exchanges, to the coffee, was first rate.

2) the person consulted knew what he was talking about. But equally he was quite willing to admit he had been challenged and had to refer to relevant texts to make sure he was right. You felt confident that he was working within the boundaries of his knowledge, not his bluff;

3) I was respected as a client. I was allowed to buy what I wanted and do what I wanted. It was clear the choices were being left with me, but support to help me achieve my aims was available to ensure that they were legally appropriate. No agenda was imposed upon me. This was a constructive relationship of adviser and client.

It was good to meet a professional who had got so much right. I asked him to bill me. He was surprised. He didn't seem to know that the best time to bill is when the client is most satisfied. As such you never know; I might recover my costs by selling him something back with just a bit of luck. I'm always inclined to try.

Richard Murphy

[email protected]

Richard Murphy consulted Taylor Vinters, Solicitors, Cambridge.

AccountingWEB contributing editor Richard Murphy is a sole practitioner chartered accountant but was previously senior partner of a firm for 11 years. He has also been chairman, chief executive or finance director of 10 SMEs. In addition to accounting, writing and lecturing Richard develops and markets software tools and guides to help accountants in practice systematise their operations.

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