Finding a lawyer
You can search a register of all Victorian lawyers and law practices that provide legal services on the VLSB+C’s website (www.lsbc.vic.gov.au).
It can be difficult to identify the best lawyer to help you. However, any legal aid organisation (see Chapter 2.2: How legal aid can help) or community legal centre (Chapter 2.4: Legal services that can help) can refer you to general and specialist lawyers.
The Law Institute of Victoria (LIV) can be particularly useful. LIV is the professional association for lawyers and has a ‘Find a Lawyer Legal Referral Service’ (for more information, see www.liv.asn.au/find-a-lawyer).
While many lawyers operate general practices, many others practise in specialist areas of law. Lawyers can also work within firms that offer clients a range of legal and non-legal services.
LIV accredits specialist lawyers in a number of areas, including criminal, family, environmental and planning, tax, commercial tenancy, business, property, wills and estates, mediation, commercial litigation, personal injury, workplace relations, immigration, costs, administrative and children’s law. To become accredited as a specialist, a lawyer must have at least five years’ experience in the relevant area and pass specified examinations.
You can find a lawyer with specialist accreditation at www.liv.asn.au/specialists.
Lawyers may advertise their services in any media, but many do not advertise their fees. You should obtain an estimate of the total cost of the legal service – or ask if you and the lawyer can agree on a fixed fee – before instructing a lawyer to act for you.
For more information about legal costs, see ‘Legal costs’, below.
Before you arrange a meeting
Before you arrange a meeting with a lawyer:
- check the cost of the initial meeting and how long it will take (not all lawyers offer the first meeting for free, and it is often better to arrange a full case assessment meeting for an agreed fee if your legal matter is complex); and
- check that the lawyer has experience or specialises in the area of your legal matter.
Preparing for your first meeting with your lawyer
There are a number of things you can do to prepare for your first meeting with your lawyer:
- write down the details of your legal problem (e.g. what happened, when it happened, and who was there);
- make copies of any documents that may be relevant to your legal matter;
- write down the questions you want to ask your lawyer;
- write down the outcome you hope to achieve in your legal matter;
- if it helps, arrange for a friend, relative or support person to go with you to your first meeting; and
- if you need one, arrange for an interpreter to attend the meeting.
At your first meeting with your lawyer
Your first meeting with your lawyer is your opportunity to establish the kind of relationship that you want to have with your lawyer, and to clarify the expectations on both sides. It helps if you:
- ask about costs (or legal aid if you need financial assistance, see Chapter 2.2: How legal aid can help);
- write down what is said;
- give the lawyer a copy of the notes you have prepared and the documents you have copied;
- respond clearly to questions your lawyer asks you;
- ask your lawyer questions if you don’t understand something or want to know what you need to do;
- ask your lawyer to explain any legal terms you don’t understand;
- ask your lawyer what options exist to deal with your legal matter and what they recommend;
- tell your lawyer of any concerns you have about your personal safety;
- ask your lawyer what happens next and how long it may take to deal with your legal matter; and
- tell your lawyer how you want to be informed about progress and be involved in decision-making at all stages.
If you are not sure you want to employ the lawyer after your first meeting, it is important to tell them to not do any work until you specifically instruct them to go ahead. If you tell the lawyer to go ahead with the work, they can charge you for that work even if you have not signed a costs agreement (unless you and the lawyer have a no-win, no-fee arrangement – see ‘Conditional fees payment schemes’, below).
If you decide to not employ the lawyer, you should advise them of your decision as soon as possible, preferably in writing. Even if you decide after the first meeting that you do not wish to employ the lawyer, they can still charge you for that meeting and for the time taken to read any documents you gave them; make sure you find out whether they will do this at the beginning of the first meeting.
After you engage a lawyer to do work for you, your lawyer must tell you how much they think the matter will cost you. They need to give you a costs disclosure document. This is a document that outlines all the costs involved in your case. A costs disclosure document must be provided unless the lawyer believes the total costs will be less than $750 (excluding GST and disbursements; see ‘How a solicitor charges’, below).
With some lawyers, you may be able to negotiate an agreed fixed fee for their services.
The success of your relationship with your lawyer depends on good communication and maintaining trust and confidence in each other. It helps if you:
- take notes of what your lawyer tells you;
- keep those notes and all letters and documents sent to you by your lawyer together in a file or folder;
- tell your lawyer if any of your contact or other details change;
- ask your lawyer questions if you don’t understand what has happened or what will happen next;
- make sure you have a clear arrangement in place about how you and your lawyer will stay in contact (including how often you can expect to receive updates on your matter). If your lawyer is charging you by the amount of time they are spending on your matter, they can charge you for time spent talking to you, so it is important to be clear about what information you need;
- if your legal matter involves the prospect of going to court, ask your lawyer what it means if you agree to ‘settle’ your legal matter instead of going to court (and what this means for your legal costs); and
- ask your lawyer if your costs are likely to increase from the original estimate or the agreed fee. This can happen if circumstances change or new factors come to light that mean the matter is more complex and/or takes more time. Your lawyer must inform you about any significant changes to the legal costs that you need to pay.
Your lawyer’s obligations and rights
Lawyers, like any other service providers, have obligations to the people who use their services. Lawyers’ obligations are set out in legislation and in professional conduct rules. For example, lawyers are obliged to:
- act in your best interests when representing you, which involves giving you frank advice;
- follow your lawful instructions; note that in acting in your best interests, your lawyer may advise that you take another course of action;
- complete legal work on your behalf competently, diligently and as promptly as reasonably possible;
- provide a detailed (or itemised) bill within 21 days of you asking for one (provided you asked for an itemised bill within 30 days of receiving the lump sum bill);
- not borrow money from you;
- in certain circumstances, decline to work for you where a conflict of interest might arise;
- give you clear and timely advice to help you understand relevant legal issues and to make informed choices about those issues and the costs involved; and
- provide, in writing, the basis on which your legal costs will be charged – this may be an agreed fee or a fee calculated on the basis of time spent on the matter – and an estimate of your total legal costs (unless those costs, excluding GST and disbursements, are unlikely to exceed $750).
Lawyers also have obligations imposed on them in relation to their practising certificate, the financial aspects of their practice, and on the handling of trust money (i.e. money held on behalf of clients). There are stringent requirements in relation to the receiving, banking, record-keeping and auditing of trust accounts. Lawyers are prohibited from receiving money on behalf of clients who use false names, and from drawing cash from clients’ trust accounts (except as lawfully allowed).
If you are unhappy with your lawyer, you can choose to take your business elsewhere. However, be aware that your former lawyer can hold onto your file and documents (this is also called holding a lien) until you pay any outstanding costs, or until your new lawyer has made an appropriate arrangement for their costs to be paid (e.g. at the end of your matter).