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When the pressure’s on, who you gonna call?

Justice is demanding of your time, your mental energy, and your pocket.

“If your lawyer asks you: ‘Did you do it?’ then replace them asap. They are not competent, no matter what they tell you.” Legal columnist HUGH SELBY has some practical advice about selecting a solicitor. 

SOMEDAY you or someone you know will need a lawyer: how do you find the right one?

Hugh Selby.

Not all lawyers are equal. Some are brilliant, most are quite okay, but some must be avoided.

Specialisation is now common: the law is changing rapidly and lawyers must be up to date.

Being a lawyer is a business. It may be small, as in a sole practitioner, medium with one or more partners and some employee lawyers, or bigger and bigger up to the megafirm with offices around the world.

Good lawyers, whatever their speciality, can see a legal problem from many vantage points, probably rather better than you can.

Good lawyers will take the time to explain how they see the problem and its solution. They will be realists, not dreamers. It’s their interest in you and your problem, not the fittings in their office, which is the guide that you seek.

Beware of a friend’s well-meant recommendation, as that can be the gullible leading the more gullible.

Justice is demanding of your time, your mental energy, and your pocket. It diverts your attention from other important aspects of your life.

As HL Mencken wrote in 1922 – a century ago – “Injustice is relatively easy to bear; what stings is justice”.

What you are looking for in your lawyer includes:

  • A sense that they are competent for the task you bring them.
  • A clear explanation as to how long your problem is going to take to resolve.
  • Do they listen and expertly guide you?
  • A sense that they can relate to you and to your problem. Beware those who come from a later generation.
  • A sense that while their fees are important their professionalism is more important.

Shop around until you find a match that meets your values and your budget. If your choice proves wrong then move to another lawyer – but your former lawyer keeps the file until outstanding costs are paid.

Getting a second opinion can be a good idea.

Keep in mind that your lawyer is not your therapist, counsellor, confidant or giver of absolution. Your lawyer can be empathetic but their focus is upon your legal problem.

Like building or renovations, legal services always cost more than planned. Hence you must get a clear explanation from the lawyer – face to face or over AVL, and with a written costs agreement – of the likely fees, how often billed, terms of trade, what are their professional fees and what are the other expenses that you will have to pay.

If litigation is likely then what is included and what is excluded in “No-win, no-fee”? Lawyers are not a charity. They are a business. If you and/or your case loses believability then you will be routed towards a settlement where your lawyers hope that their professional fees are paid by the other side. You will get not much or nothing.

Beware the dire consequences of going to court and losing. If you are ordered to pay the other side’s lawyer costs then you can lose everything.

If the principle is important, then find someone with deep pockets who wants to fund it. 

Legal Aid is not a substitute for taking responsibility for your actions and your life. If you pay next to nothing then expect not much. Legal Aid schemes around Australia are bedevilled by inadequate government funding, overworked lawyers and keen but inexperienced lawyers. 

A few points for criminal cases:

  • If you’re a complainant then there has to be evidence, not assertion.

If you’re a defendant/accused then:

  • Do NOT consider taking part in a police interview until after you have been charged and received the police case against you.
  • If your lawyer asks you: “Did you do it?” then replace them asap. They are not competent, no matter what they tell you.
  • If your lawyer asks you: “What do the police say that you did?” then you are probably in good hands;
  • If there are people who will write and/or say good things about you then welcome them. This is when you will find out who your true friends are. 
  • If you didn’t do it, then you are in for an awful experience. As the old gypsy curse says: “May you have a lawsuit in which you know you are in the right”. Why? The criminal justice system survives because most people plead guilty. Of those who plead not guilty, many are taking a gamble, throwing the dice, that a key witness won’t turn up, or the prosecutor will be ill-prepared, or that the police weren’t thorough enough in their investigation. The “innocent” person often has no memory of key events because there was nothing memorable about the time they were wrongly accused of involvement in a crime.
  • Don’t talk to the media: their interest is the story, not you.

In any litigation, whether as a party or a witness, you need to be prepared: listen to the free, four short episodes podcast “Witness Essentials” on Spotify, Apple, Amazon, Google and other podcast sites.

Hugh Selby is the “CityNews” legal affairs commentator. His free podcasts on “Witness Essentials” and “Advocacy in court: preparation and performance” can be heard on the best known podcast sites.

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Thank you,

Ian Meikle, editor

Hugh Selby

Hugh Selby

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