There are more than 65,000 practising lawyers in Australia. This article explains why it’s so hard to find a good one.
In short, finding a good lawyer comes down to fit. Your definition of a ‘good lawyer’ could be very different to someone else’s. Although ‘fit’ covers a range of factors, the most important ones are typically these:
- Area(s) of expertise
- Depth of expertise
- Work capacity
- Cultural fit
If you get any of these variables wrong, you’re unlikely to be happy with your choice of lawyer. Conversely, if you get it right, you will likely have found yourself a key business partner who will be able to give you invaluable advice for years to come.
Area(s) and depth of expertise
Like many industries, the legal profession is now highly specialised. It is impossible for a single lawyer to be an expert in all things.
Making things more complicated, the legal profession is more specialised than you might think.
You will already be aware that different lawyers practice in different areas (eg M&A, construction, property, family law, criminal law etc). But within each of those areas, there will be even further areas of specialisation. For example, within construction law, you will find lawyers that specialise in "front end" work (contract negotiation), "back end" work (disputes), particular types of projects (eg public-private partnerships), or even specific aspects of the project (eg WHS, finance).
Fundamentally, the question is, what type(s) of expertise do you need, how deep do you need that expertise to be?
In answering this question, you should also consider whether you would prefer to deal with the same lawyer over time, or whether you would prefer to work with different lawyers for different types of issue.
In other words, would you prefer to work with a lawyer who could become an expert in your business (and who has skills that will be helpful to the different types of issue that your business is likely to face)? Or would you prefer to deal with a different, dedicated expert, who has no knowledge of your business, but who is a genuine specialist in the problem at hand. There are obviously pros and cons for each.
The reason you need to make this decision is because of the way the legal professional operates.
As lawyers progress through their careers, they effectively face two options:
- develop deep expertise in a narrow range of areas; or
- develop some expertise in a broad range of areas.
General counsel, whether working within a company or working in law firms as more generalist commercial lawyers, typically fall into the second category. They will typically know a little about a lot of things, and have a significant amount of knowledge in the area(s) that are most relevant to the specific industry they are working in.
A broad range of experience enables a general counsel to provide guidance across a range of areas, and make sure that when their client encounters a legal problem, they are asking the right questions and seeking the right type of advice. General counsel will sometimes work with other lawyers with more specialised expertise to deal with issues where they are less familiar.
Most established organisations will have a relationship with a general counsel. (Of if they don’t, they are actively looking for one.) Sometimes that person works as an employee of the company, and sometimes that role is filled by an external lawyer whom the company calls upon as a trusted external advisor.
Either way, the point is this: if you're looking for a lawyer to work with your business, a good commercial lawyer with a generalist skillset, and with specialist expertise in the industry in which you operate, is going to be a great place to start.
The ability to look at problems from a commercial perspective is not something that is taught at law school. And although many lawyers promote themselves as being ‘commercial’, very few truly are.
The reason for this is that lawyers are trained to look for risk, regardless of how remote or material it might be, and then to do whatever they can to make sure you are protected from it.
In some situations, there is nothing inherently wrong with this.
Over time though, you are likely to prefer working with a lawyer who:
- does not classify all risk as dangerous, and is instead able to help you convert risk into opportunity; and
- is able to help you identify what is genuinely important, rather than attempting to protect you against every risk (however trivial).
The ability to provide this type of advice only comes with experience, and typically takes years to develop.
You will find that the best lawyers have many years of experience (generally speaking, 10 at the absolute minimum). They tend to be flexible, practical and creative thinkers who are able to find solutions to virtually any problem. That is the kind of lawyer most people enjoy working with.
All good lawyers are busy, pretty much all of the time.
If finding a good lawyer wasn’t hard enough, finding a good lawyer with capacity to perform the work within your required timeframe can be even trickier.
There are two ways you can overcome this problem.
The first is to use a large law firm. By large, I mean a firm with at least 100 lawyers.
The biggest benefit of working with a large firm is that, for the right matter and the right client, they will usually have the ability to commit whatever resources are required to any given project at any given time. Sometimes this can involve large teams of people working exceptionally long hours to get the job finished within the required deadline.
The obvious downside of the ability to provide this service is cost. Maintaining a large team of lawyers is not cheap, and this is reflected in the way large law firms charge for their services. Also, unless you are a very large organisation, the level of service you receive from a large firm is not likely to be the same as the level of service they will offer to larger, institutional clients who can offer the firm millions of dollars of work, every year.
Your alternative is to develop a relationship with a small firm or individual lawyer.
Developing this kind of relationship is more likely to result in you being able to attract the attention of a senior lawyer, whenever you need it.
Although small firms will (by definition) not have the same physical capacity as larger ones, you are likely to find that the level of service provided by a small firm is higher - in the sense of it being more personal and you having more direct contact with senior lawyers - and they will be able to meet your turnaround times, provided you are not unreasonable.
It is for these reasons that, outside of large institutional clients (such as governments, banks and major listed companies), most organisations prefer dealing with small firms.
You’re more likely to enjoy working with someone if there is a good cultural alignment.
That is, you can relate to one another, you share similar values, and you generally get along.
There will be lawyers who are otherwise fantastic, but whom you find difficult to deal with at an interpersonal level. Yes, they might be a great lawyer – but are they are the right lawyer for you?
A good lawyer should be someone you feel comfortable working with, without any reservations. This is because the relationship ultimately relies on mutual trust.
Cultural fit is a difficult one to assess. Although websites can provide some clues, you’re not likely to get a true sense of fit until after you have met face-to-face and potentially not until after you have started working with one another.
And finally, there is obviously the price. Lawyers are not cheap, particularly good ones.
As a general rule, working with smaller firms is likely to be less expensive than working with a larger one. Working with firms in Sydney and Melbourne will usually be more expensive than engaging lawyers in other parts of Australia.
Ultimately, the question of cost is a question for you. If the value you receive from your lawyer is less than the cost, the relationship is obviously doomed.
But as with most good things in life, if you do find yourself a good a lawyer, you’re likely to hear yourself say something like this: ‘They’re not cheap, but they’re worth every cent’.
So where to from here?
If you’ve made it to this point in this article, that suggests you’re in need of a good lawyer, but haven’t found one yet. Either that, or you’ve got too much time on your hands.
If you are in the search for a good lawyer, I suggest you focus on the things I mentioned at the top of the article – namely:
- Area(s) of expertise
- Depth of expertise
- Work capacity
- Cultural fit
You will be able to glean a lot of those things through a website (like this one), but some of them you will only be able to determine by establishing a connection.
If you don’t know much about Turtons, I would encourage you to browse through our website. And if you’d like to know more, please don’t hesitate to contact me. (My details are below.) I’d love to hear from you.