I was asked the other day how to find a good lawyer. Now technically, that is the wrong question. In this country you have to differentiate between an advocate (barrister in the UK) and attorney (solicitor in the UK) and the two are vastly different in outlook. They mostly have the same qualifications, the older ones all have post graduate LLB degrees, and the newer ones a four year first degree, also called LLB and wholly inadequate in my eyes. It is nothing but the old B-Proc. You can guess that mine is post graduate, but we spoke about this before when I said sanity is returning and the four year LLB degree to be scrapped by some universities. You can read the blog yourself.
Let us look at the fancy boys. The largest law offices are most certainly not the most effective lawyers around. They are categorically money driven and have huge targets to meet, which means no real personal service to you - they are too busy to chase that target. Someone must pay for the correct address and everything which comes with that and you, the clients are the fools who do so. Practically speaking, and this is important to me, you almost never find parking close to them and you pay ten times, if lucky, more for the same advice that the local lad down the corner would have given you. In my opinion, the chances of your file being padded, that is to share it amongst many lawyers, each adding his time - read money you pay for - on it is vastly increased simply because they work in teams. Of course it is not always like that but I will bring you many who will testify to such things. Teams are their business model and it is sold as having a team is always better than having just one man. Yes, in certain cases, because of the complexity of such cases, that is needed but mostly not. You have to ask why is it that 95% of other law offices don't need a team. Why is that? Why are they working alone with a secretary to help them?
So what do you get? A name, a big brand name, which they will tell you is enough to win cases as your opponent will be scared enough to settle. It makes sense and of course, you never start a legal procedure without wanting to win, because if you lose, you will be hammered for wasted costs. This is to prevent spurious actions like we see in America. And yes, it has a small bit of truth in it, your worst enemy (banksters and other creditors) always abuses this as much as possible. They will keep hammering away via expensive lawyers to break you financially and then they win by default. We speak of this deplorable, but sadly legal, tactic in my book Your Worst Enemy.
But the big name brand theory sold to you at vast cost has a problem. Their opponents, the other lawyers (I use the word as a collective noun), don't think much of it and certainly don't live in fear of them either. They know how many times the big brands get hammered in court by the smaller guys. They know it is not the big brand against them but the merits of the case. The lawyer is almost irrelevant in this and it does not matter whether the other side has its top partner or the most junior professional assistant against them. Let me explain to you, you have only that many options since almost nothing is ever new in law. So it is a matter of recalling what happened under the same circumstances before, and from that you can logically deduct what the court will decide (called the starre decisis system). You always take a chance, there is no doubt it is always 50/50 for you either win your case or you loose and very rarely, only in civil cases, you have a draw which is called absolution of instance.
Law is not rocket science at all, just a foreign language and a lot of attention to detail and experience. That is where you find a good lawyer. The guy who cares or at least tries to look interested in what you have to say, and whose workload is such that he can give you the attention you pay him for. There is nothing more disrespectful than to speak to a professional man and he cannot place your face and your file without having to scan through it in your presence. I have advised clients to walk out of such meetings and change lawyers and I will certainly do so again. It is an insult.
The other trademark of a good lawyer is one who is able to explain to you the risks you are taking in a language you get. This is not about blind trust but of making informed decisions and you have to understand what you base those decisions on. I have seen managing directors fired by their boards because they took the word of a legal advisor blindly and authorised money to be thrown after bad debt. It is always a business decision against what you get for your buck. Very few lawyers are able to explain the law in terms which sane people will understand and even fewer bother because most are inherently arrogant. About what, I would not know. It is not rocket science. Get one who explains properly.
Price has nothing to do with quality. It is a well-known and much abused concept in life that the more you charge; the better you are perceived to be. Obviously that fancy light bulb at twice the price must be better than the no-name brand? Yes? No of course not, they probably come from the same factory. It is utter nonsense in real life. Look at it this way. If price buys quality in law, why is your case decided on merit? Why does the Judge never say "Ok, I note the plaintiff paid his lawyer more than what the defendant did. Ok then, on those grounds, I decide in favour of the plaintiff!" What nonsense, the Judge would usually not know who paid who what. Your case is decided on what happened and any reasonably proficient lawyer will be able to present it to the court. That is called merits in law and all there is to it. Money plays no role.
The smaller guy will also answer your emails and phone calls himself. There is no red tape designed to keep the senior partner away from the plebs called clients. Nope, he is too busy playing golf or doing the secretary or whatever. I have seen clients cry in anger because they are ignored. Then they get annoyed and go to the law society for assistance and everyone is then angry with each other. Personally, if someone doesn't return my phone call I refuse to speak to him again. It is a personal insult. You don't need such aggro in life.
Lastly, almost every significant change in law was made by the smaller guys who just would not agree with the system. I remember back in the 1990's when the rights of unmarried fathers went to court, successfully I may add. That was not done by the big brand names but by a small guy who believed in his client. In fact, if I remember correctly, the big brands were opposing it. That is what you want...a guy who cares about your case and not the money.
And before you get ideas, JKLS Africa & Associates is not a law office. We specialise in reducing legal and business risks in Sub Saharan Africa. The way we do it is via the forensic law method I developed and you can read about in my book Tricks of Trade - Memories of a Rogue Lawyer. It will take the big brands ten years to copy me and even then they will not really understand why I have satisfied clients. My advice to you....when you need a good lawyer, go to the guy down the street. He is probably all you need and leave the brand names to work with their corporate mates. They deserve each other.
Koos Kotze is a former member of the South African Police Force. He served between 1985 and 1991 primarily as a sergeant in the Pretoria Flying Squad. After leaving the Police Force he obtained the law degrees B Iuris & LLB at the University of the Free State (Bloemfontein, South Africa) and was a practicing commercial law attorney for eight years. He also wrote several books on business, law, counter terrorism and security issues. He is a widower and lives in Bloemfontein, South Africa.