What matters most to clients when hiring a lawyer
In most lives, there comes a time when the services of a legal professional are required. Your marriage may break down, you may need to draw up a contract, or you may want to bring a case against someone for damages or failure to pay. You may even find yourself on the wrong side of the law, perhaps caught in a roadblock when you’ve had one too many. How do you go about choosing a lawyer to represent your interests? How do you make sure you find a good one? A recent survey of over 1000 consumers in the US reinforces what our own intuition – and our clients – tell us.
Not surprisingly, over half of the survey respondents said that reviews by past clients were the most influential factor when choosing a lawyer. Word of mouth has always played an important role in referrals to lawyers and other professionals. “Do you know a good …?”, directed at friends and family members, is probably the first place most people start when they need a service they have not used before. The social transition to using the internet as a source of information means that we can now seek the views of strangers as well. You may not personally know many people who have recently gone through a divorce, but the internet is full of them. Key in the search term “divorce lawyer” or “divorce attorney” and you’ll get pages and pages of responses, which you can filter by rating. SD Law is rated 4.9 (out of 5.0) by clients.
However, reviews are the end result of a lawyer/client interaction. A review is an output. What inputs on the lawyer’s part lead to the satisfied client leaving a five-star review? In other words, what does a lawyer do to make the experience satisfactory for the client? These inputs break down into a number of categories.
If you’re in the position of choosing a lawyer, chances are you want to speak to someone now. However, the likelihood of calling a law firm and being put straight through to a partner is slim. And if the practising attorneys are that available, what does that say about them? But you do want someone to call you back or answer your email promptly. If you are making enquiries of several law firms in your initial search, the one who responds first will probably make the best impression on you. In the US survey, 79% of clients expected a response within 24 hours, but the data available on US law firms showed that most failed to meet that reasonable expectation. At SD Law, if we can’t take your call straight away we will call you back the same day. Emails are also answered within 24 hours.
Once you’ve hired your lawyer and they are working on your case, matters may arise that you need to communicate timeously. Here it’s important to strike a balance. You may work a busy job and need to speak to your attorney after your working hours. Client-focused lawyers will make themselves available for extended hours or by arrangement. But everyone is entitled to a personal life and clients should have fair and reasonable expectations of after-hours contact. After all, would you trust a family lawyer to prioritise your children’s interests if they don’t make time for their own family? Rather, ask the lawyer if there are systems in place to enable essential contact at evenings and weekends if necessary. This might be an emergency number for the use of current clients, a WhatsApp chat facility, or a rota of junior associates to take calls. At SD Law, we ensure your call is answered around the clock and a call-back is arranged within 24 hours.
Understandably, cost and billing is a big issue for clients. Hourly billing is still the norm, in the US and in South Africa. However, 67% of clients in the US survey would like the option of paying flat fees. In our experience, South African clients also appreciate flat fees. No one wants to write a blank cheque for legal fees. A lawyer may publicise their hourly rate but you have no way of estimating how long a case will take. Flat fees are transparent and allow clients to budget. Clients also like results- or outcome-based fees. This arrangement tends to be limited to damages and personal injury cases, where the lawyer takes a percentage of the final settlement as their fee.
At SD Law, we charge flat fees for services we perform for clients on a regular basis, such as divorce, eviction, and liquor licence applications. Some services, like a contested divorce, can be hard to estimate in advance. It is impossible to know how long a court case will last. However, our extensive experience in the field means we have very likely handled a similar case in the past, so we are able to estimate the time the case will take and what it will cost. We will always make sure you understand the service you require and the likely cost, before we commence work on your case.
In the US, each state has its own legal system, so clients in the survey wanted a lawyer in their own state, to ensure familiarity with the local laws and a licence to practise in that state. In South Africa, our provinces are not quite as independent as US states and our legal system is national, but it is still important to have a lawyer connected to the legal network in the province where you live; and there are some provincial peculiarities they need to be aware of.
That said, as long as the lawyer is local, clients don’t mind whether they work from home or an office. As a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, along with rapid advances in technology over the past few years (fuelled in part by the pandemic), home or hybrid working has become normal and widely accepted. Clients are comfortable with and may even prefer online consultations. Virtual meetings save travel time and are much easier to fit around a busy life. But most clients want the possibility of a face-to-face meeting. In-person contact is good for relationship building, and benefits both parties. And if your case goes to court, it’s preferable to have your lawyer nearby. It’s more convenient and they will have working relationships with the local court officials.
SD Law has offices in Cape Town, Johannesburg and Durban. Wherever you are, we can serve you from a local office.
- Billable hours vs. flat fees
- Choosing the right divorce lawyer or family attorney in South Africa
- Choosing a criminal defence attorney
The information on this website is provided to assist the reader with a general understanding of the law. While we believe the information to be factually accurate, and have taken care in our preparation of these pages, these articles cannot and do not take individual circumstances into account and are not a substitute for personal legal advice. If you have a legal matter that concerns you, please consult a qualified attorney. Simon Dippenaar & Associates takes no responsibility for any action you may take as a result of reading the information contained herein (or the consequences thereof), in the absence of professional legal advice.