- Ask for a referral from a community legal centre or from LegalAid to someone they trust. The lawyers that have close links with CLC's and LegalAid tend to be more genuine and responsive to clients, often having done community service in the past.
- Look up the accredited specialists on the Law Institute of Victoria website. These lawyers have taken extra tests and exams that demonstrate their expertise in a particular area, e.g. criminal law.
- Shop around, as prices vary. You can get a free 30 minute consultation using the Law Institute of Victoria referral service.
- Aim to get a fixed price type of deal, rather than having hourly rates. This will prevent the notorious problem of the lawyer inflating the amount of time spent so they earn more money. Make sure you check that each stage of work is completed properly and without mistakes and is actually necessary (use some common-sense, do your own research).
If you decide to ignore my advice and go with a lawyer that sends you bills that charge by the hour, don't tell them the maximum you are willing to pay because this could potentially encourage them to inflate the amount of work done in order to meet that target. For example, if a client tells a lawyer he is willing to pay up to $4500, the lawyer could spend time doing unnecessary billable research so as to get closer to the $4500 total. Insist on only essential work being done.
Don't pay them all the money upfront: stagger the payments. If they overcharge, you still possess your money until a court orders otherwise, rather than the lawyer having it.
- Get the agreement in writing at an early stage and make sure it specifies what it covers.
- Don't trust lawyers with your original documents, unless absolutely necessary. They often lose items. Also, lawyers are legally entitled to hold onto your file if you don't pay the bill. So that means if you receive a bill that is clearly excessive and overinflated (lawyers are able to charge exorbitant rates because their salaries are protected by government through the cartel that is the legal profession), they won't return your documents and you'll be placed in a difficult position.
- Sometimes lawyers will email you a costs agreement and there will be a clause in fine print that says even if you haven't signed anything, by continuing to provide instructions you are assumed to have signed the agreement and that therefore they can bill you for their time. So make sure to read everything they send you thoroughly.
- At the end of the day, you need to treat the lawyer as your assistant expert rather than blindly trusting what they're saying. Lawyers can be wrong and make mistakes. It's up to you to make good decisions, and make sure the lawyer prepares thoroughly for a hearing etc. No one has a stronger interest in the outcome of a case than you: to the lawyer you are just another client.
I think LegalAid and Community Legal Centres are fairly competent. So if you can avoid having to fork out for a private lawyer, because the matter is simple, try a free resource first. Essentially a private lawyer will charge a lot of money for doing the same job. However there are instances when you'll need to go with a private lawyer because LegalAid funding isn't available.