Choosing a lawyer or firm

How to choose a lawyer if that's the way you're going

A lot like doctors, lawyers have their own language, which can be off putting. Getting a a lawyer or law firm on your side is known as instructing a lawyer. It essentially means employing them; you are literally giving them your instructions to do this, that or the other, including represent you. You therefore instruct a solicitor to handle your case and, if necessary, they instruct a barrister to give their expert legal opinion and represent you in court / at tribunal.

A quick explanation of the difference between a solicitor and a barrister. It used to be simpler, as members of the public could not instruct a barrister, and solicitors could not speak in court. Now some solicitors can train to have what are called ‘rights of audience’ which means they can speak in court. Some barristers also accept instructions from members of the public, under a scheme called direct access. This is usually for members of the public who are very experienced in their field and who want to cut out the middle person (the solicitor). The downside in a direct access instruction of a barrister is that it’s expensive up front. You’re paying for what barristers will call ‘a written advice’ or ‘an advice’ which is their very clever and insightful opinion of your case and your chances of success. They will also charge a fee to attend the hearing and represent you. Depending on the experience and expertise of the barrister, this could be anything from £5,000 to £10,000. That’s a lot of money up front, but it is less than the cost of a solicitor's 25% conditional fee on a delayed Level 8 claim (see the Awards and Costs pages for more information.) If a solicitor representing you instructs a barrister for the appeal hearing, the barrister's fees will usually be between £1,200 and £3,000.

Choosing the right lawyer or firm

If you do decide to use a lawyer, make sure they're doing things the way you want them to, and that you have a good relationship with them. This can be difficult, as it's part of a lawyer's job to be confident and reassuring to a client. If you're like me, just making phone calls can leave you extremely anxious, before and after the call. The idea of telling someone "actually, you're not giving me good vibes, I'm going to try someone else," is terrifying, especially as they're unlikely to say, "ok, good luck" and more likely to say "why? What can I do to make it better so I can still take on your case?"

Getting a real feel for a lawyer or firm is incredibly difficult. Their websites will all say they're dedicated to you, they'll never give up, they're specialists. They'll all have client testimonials saying stuff like "James Fairman was the best lawyer ever, he was so polite and kept me informed all the time" (no one has ever said that about me by the way when I was a lawyer, I was awful at doing things quickly because I spent too long trying to make everything perfect first.)

I would therefore choose one on how they feel to you. Read recommendations and criticism if there is any on the internet. Don't always dismiss a firm because of criticism, as when people lose a case they are likely to blame the lawyer. 

Speak to the lawyer if you can. One of the lawyers I spoke to was fantastic in my first call. I was clearly tripping over my words and was very anxious, and he just spoke calmly to me, suggested I take a seat even though I was on the phone, reassured me I had his full attention, and invited me to talk through my situation.   The stereotypical New York city lawyer like Harvey from Suits suggests they earn a fortune, have one case at a time and get lunch out of the office every day; this doesn't happen for real, a lawyer is always under time pressure. If one offers you their time at your pace, that's a special thing.

I recommend a couple of things to make it easier for you and the solicitor. 

  • Don't be disappointed if you don't get to speak to the solicitor straight away. They will often have gate keeping staff who will take your details first before you're called back by the solicitor, who is likely to be at a tribunal, at court or in a meeting.
  • Have a brief summary or chronology written down. If you're like I was when I got through on the phone, I became a mumbling idiot, so having some notes would have helped.
  • It sounds obvious, but try and get somewhere private where you won't be disturbed. If you're taking a call back from them, it's absolutely ok to ask for them to ring back in a couple of minutes when you've got somewhere private, or parked the car, or even that it's not a convenient time, and ask them to call at another time.
  • Write down any questions important to you, so that you don't forget them. You might want to ask about costs, timescales, what happens next.
  • Write down any important points from the call. It's a good habit to make notes of telephone calls, especially if you're dealing with Veterans Welfare Service or Veterans UK (see the Applying pages).
  • When explaining things to the lawyer, be honest and give true descriptions, even if some of the facts may be personal or embarrassing. A solicitor is there to help you and can't do so if you use half truths, hide anything, or ham things up.
  • If you don't understand something they've said, it's ok to ask them to explain.
  • If and when you do instruct someone, ask them about the frequency of updates between you. When do they want to hear from you, and when will they update you. This avoids you being on tenterhooks thinking every email or phone call is the lawyer, and it avoids them chasing you if, for example, you're due to send them some medical stuff you don't have yet.

A fair award

The big thing to remember is you’re not trying to get the highest award, you’re trying to get the fair award that fits your injury, illness or condition in the Order. None of the consideration of the cost of lawyers would be necessary if Veterans UK did their f-ing jobs properly, but there seems to be a large amount of anecdotal reporting that they don’t. 

My situation is, I think, one of those anecdotal reports. I say “I think” because I haven’t been to tribunal yet, and those involved with my case at Veterans UK have sown huge doubt in my head about whether I’m a greedy ambulance chaser or not. We shall see.