To all the lay folk out there, what do you picture when someone tells you they are a lawyer? Is it the man in an expensive suit, working in swanky offices who charges you a small (or not-so-small) fortune? Or maybe the criminal lawyer of many an American movie, banging their fist on the table and shouting at the jury? Both paint a certain picture which, I for one, do not think is representative of the legal field as a whole. I and many of my incredible colleagues often battle against the perceptions of lawyers being expensive, inaccessible or difficult to deal with, or, even worse, fat cat fraudsters lining their own pockets at the expense of ‘the little guy’. To counter this, here is a list of some of the amazing things that solicitors really do on a daily basis:
1. Help clients through big life moments
I can still remember being told during my LPC to always be conscious of the fact that clients are not there for the fun of it. People generally go to see a solicitor either because they need to (for instance buying a house) or because things have gone wrong (a death, divorce or litigation). Because of this, we have an important role in helping clients through some of the most significant moments in their life. One of the biggest compliments I have ever received as a probate solicitor was that I made a difficult situation (the death of this client’s mother) as painless as possible. We have a significant part to play in ensuring that things go smoothly and can minimise the stress our clients experience while they go through major upheaval in their lives.
2. Run their business at a loss
Not many people outside the legal industry realise just how much access to free legal advice has been cut. Legal aid lawyers carry out a vital public service but within the last decade the nature of cases which qualify for legal aid has been drastically reduced. For law firms, setting yourselves up to be able to accept legal aid funded clients is time consuming and involves a mountain of paperwork. On top of that, the amount that firms are able to recoup through the legal aid system is small and, frankly speaking, insufficient to actually cover the costs of running a modern legal practice. As a result, the number of firms that are able to offer this service has been drastically reduced and those that do offer it, do so at a loss to ensure that those most in need can continue to access professional legal assistance.
3. Give away their time for free
There is such a thing as free advice. Not including the many, many lawyers and firms who offer pro bono advice or volunteer with charitable organisations, such as the Citizens Advice Bureau, I would hate to think how much advice I do give for free on a day-to-day basis. Generally speaking this will be pointing people in the right direction or telling them whether they can tackle things themselves. We do this because some things just aren’t worth involving a solicitor for. On other occasions it will be existing clients (or even non-clients) with relatively small questions which we respond to in order to maintain a good relationship, or just to be helpful. It helps both sides to find the substantive work, rather than grabbing every penny possible. Solicitor’s fees are not cheap and by only taking on meaningful work we ensure that clients get value for their money.
4. The odd jobs
Although not always the best way to spend money where it can be avoided, solicitors can be used to help with practical tasks when clients are unsure where else to turn. To give a flavour, this can include help with managing finances, organising property clearance, submitting claims for funding, passing items on to family members etc. As a general rule we do this where matters are complicated and requires professional oversight or where there have been disputes and an independent person is needed to ease tensions. We also sometimes act in these roles where there is no family around to help, or in estates where the main beneficiaries are charities and so need a person on the ground to complete the practical tasks.
5. Be a trusted confidant
We are the people in whom clients place their trust. Clients provide us with very personal information, from their family circumstances, financial position to their health, something they will only do when there is a high level of trust. There is an understanding that we will act in their best interest, and not our own or the interest of related parties. In some cases, this can include advising clients who find themselves in a vulnerable position, or helping clients plan for their future and ensuring that their children are taken care of. We are able to deal with third parties and smooth over family divisions and will often be asked to act as peacemaker when people do not see eye to eye. In litigation, clients need to be honest with their lawyer to ensure that all elements of their case are properly considered (and for the record don’t worry, they aren’t judging and they’ve definitely heard worse). Our role can be very personal and, it is for that reason, that people tend to stay with the solicitor who they trust the most. For solicitors, trust is paramount and so solicitors who act in a way which calls this into question are rightly punished.
I hope this gives a bit more of an insight into some of the less obvious things we do and the roles that we play in our clients' lives. I hope it also helps to banish that stereotypical image of who a solicitor should be.