You have a legal problem for which you need advice and, potentially, representation in court. To whom should you turn?
Before I jump in to discuss a legal problem it may be instructive to consider a medical analogy. Let’s suppose you have some rather concerning symptoms such as intermittent but sharp chest pains. You visit your GP, by definition a generalist, who listens to your heart using her stethoscope. She seems a little unsure of the best way forward. She gives you a choice of taking no action (‘let’s just wait and see how matters develop’), offering a prescription for a course of drugs or referring you to a cardiologist. Which would you choose?
In a similar way, if you have a legal problem, you have a comparable range of options. You can take no action. (Believe it or not, some clients who consult me only do so after having ignored a problem for as long as possible. This can result in a sharp reduction in options). Secondly, you could consult a generalist lawyer (whether a barrister or a solicitor) although this could leave you a little uneasy as to whether you have actually been given the best advice. Or, you have the option of consulting a specialist in the relevant field.
With the ongoing liberalisation of the legal market and the benefits of competition, there is now a wide range of choice. You could consult a firm of solicitors with a national reach, or a generalist local firm, or a boutique firm (as in a small, niche practice) or, given recent changes in the regulatory system, go straight to a public access barrister. Which factors should you take into account?
Most of us would want to access the most skilled and expert advice we could find. We would also like the continuity of service in that we would probably prefer to be dealt with, in the main, by a small team led by one experienced practitioner rather than being pushed form ‘pillar to post’. And, if we are not asking too much, we would also like such assistance to be provided without us having to take out a second mortgage to pay the fees. Is it possible to access advice containing all of these characteristics in one place? I venture to suggest that the answer is, ‘yes’, in the form of the boutique practice.
I have recently joined a group called the Hexagon Legal Network which is run by solicitors. Within the membership are small firms of solicitors specialising in a wide range of areas of practice. If you were to engage such a firm it is likely to be run by experienced yet approachable individuals. You can expect to receive continuity of service without the level of costs imposed by those firms with national reach. In short, you can access in one place expert advice which won’t cost you the earth delivered with a personal touch.
What about public access barristers? Nowadays you can engage a barrister directly who specialises in the area of law you need. If you need litigation services (such as correspondence being sent and received on your behalf, your lawyer going on the court record, the taking of witness statements etc) then you will probably be well advised to consult a solicitor. However, if you require expert advice and first class courtroom representation then the public access barrister may well provide the ideal solution. Given that he is a sole practitioner the costs are likely to be highly competitive in comparison with the prices charged by national firms of solicitors specialising in the same area. (This is certainly the case in my field i.e. that of defending motorists facing loss of driving licence).
In today’s market, there is a plethora of options for the user of legal services. Of course, there is never going to be a ‘one size fits all solution’ in that there will always be institutions and companies for which resort to a national firm of solicitors is affordable and convenient. At the other extreme, there will always be individuals with routine legal issues for whom the priority is obtaining legal aid or being charged the lowest possible fees. For such clients, the generalist high street solicitors’ firm may be the best solution. However, there is a large range of discerning clients between these two extremes for whom the boutique practice (whether in the form of a firm of solicitors or that of a public access barrister) with its characteristics of expertise delivered with a personal touch and at an affordable price, may, in fact, provide the ultimate solution.