5 top tips for vetting your legal adviser

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Sang Nkhwazi

Sang is a Patent & Trade Marks Representative & Director of Franks & Co Mancunium Ltd, a firm of European Patent & Trade Marks Attorneys based in Cheadle, Stockport. The firm advises on the protection and enforcement of Intellectual Property Rights and assists with the procedures involved in obtaining protection for inventions, trade marks, designs and artistic works. You can contact him on 0161 820 2891 or email sang.nkhwazi@franksco.com
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Not a popular topic to tackle.

1. Check for references.

There are many things one could do when looking for a legal adviser. Whether you have invented a new thing and are considering filing a patent application, or you simply need to get an opinion on whether to start legal proceedings, there’s a lot you can do. However, one of the simplest is to check for references. Just pick up the phone and call people who have had work done by the adviser or firm(s) you are considering. Like employee vetting, what the company, solicitor or attorney has done in the past will be a credible indicator of what future work will look like. It helps asking for at least two references. In any case, if you are going to be paying hundreds or a couple of thousand pounds for the work, it makes sense to know a little bit about them. The lawyer should have a track record and experience in undertaking whatever legal issue that you require doing. You should ask questions, although many firms use time billing, so keep these short and to a minimum so that attending to your questions does not take up too much of the lawyer’s time.

2. Read reviews / rankings

We’re not advocating trawling through SolicitorsfromHell.com, but if you can find independent reviews, such as those on TrustPilot, Glassdoor or Legal 500, consider using them to gauge the quality of work you may expect from your attorney. That’s not to say that every legal firm that does not have reviews or a thumbs up by Legal 500 cannot help you resolve your query, or produce quality work. Websites, like guru.com, elance.com, legalhub.com, could also be useful in finding ratings of different lawyers. There are also sites like Lexoo that allows clients to ask questions to several lawyers or Patent / Trade mark attorneys (who are given an opportunity to explain how they would undertake the work if chosen) before selecting one.

3. Check for complaints

It may sound obvious, but you will be surprised how many people do not check what the reputation of a particular company is. It’s always helpful to check if there have been complaints lodged against the company, online or at the regulatory body which regulates that company’s profession. Here, a clear distinction should be made between a single complaint lodged by a difficult character/ disgruntled past employee, and a genuine complaint that results from a mistake, or the firm not keeping its obligations in a client-firm relationship. Further, random complaints made online may be less trustworthy than those lodged at the regulatory body which regulates the firm.

If there have been complaints, you should check to see how the complaints were handled, and whether the firm was open and transparent about the mistake. Legal practitioners are human, and sometimes they make mistakes. However, the way a problem is resolved (and whether an apology was issued) will be instructive in showing you what kind of company they are.

4 Ask for a sample

(…and schedule of fees)

Yes. You can get a sample of previously done work. Alarm bells should sound if they refuse to provide such samples. You may be referred to a case the firm did, that they won. Or a Patent they drafted, which is now published. Ask to see a sample of something that they have done, along the lines of the work you need, which shows their expertise and range of skills. You can then decide whether the work they have done in the past proves that they have sufficient experience in dealing with your matter. This may also be an opportunity for you to ask for their list of fees for each particular action that may need doing. But it must be borne in mind that a win or positive outcome in one case doesn’t automatically translate to success in a subsequent matter, even if the matters are similar. It very much depends on the facts in each individual case.

5. Request a meeting

Disorganisation, inexperience and general chaos is easy to spot. Conversely, while feigned confidence can be hard to spot, if at the first meeting your chosen lawyer struggles to grasp what it is you need, or if there is over-emphasis on things like fees, even before hearing your story in detail – beware.

Your adviser should listen and try to understand your needs. Legal services are an important public service, and ultimately, they are to do with people; people’s needs. Your lawyer should understand this, and be professional and empathetic from the very start; they should put you the client at the heart of the work they do. In any case, it is likely that the code of conduct of their professional organisation demands that they put your interests first, so you are justified to expect the same.

But if at the end of the face-to-face meeting you are still unsure, try someone else.