An article by solicitors explaining how you can reduce legal costs may seem counter-intuitive and, if you are a sceptic, something to be approached with due caution. However, in this case, it is born from an altruistic desire to inform you about how significant costs can be incurred in professional negligence claims and the steps available to you to reduce them.
While this article is primarily intended for anyone contemplating a claim for professional negligence, and draws on our extensive experience of resolving these types of claims, the recommendations we make do have much wider application. Indeed, a number of the recommendations could have averted some of the fee disputes we have encountered, time and again, between clients and their solicitors in other areas of legal practice.
Our top tips
While not an exhaustive list, here are our top tips to reduce legal costs:
1. Use a specialist solicitor
While it is undoubtedly the case that our view is skewed by our experience of acting in professional negligence claims, after financial damage has been done, it never ceases to alarm us when we encounter clients who have instructed a solicitor who has limited experience in the area of law concerned. In many of these cases, the client has decided to instruct the solicitor because they, or perhaps a family member or friend, have previously instructed the same solicitor, or another solicitor in the same firm, on an entirely distinct matter and were happy with the service that they received.
While a positive experience of instructing a particular solicitor or firm should not be ignored, it does not automatically follow that you will receive the same level of expertise and service from that solicitor or firm, in a matter involving another area of legal practice. Therefore, in our opinion, it is much more important that you consider the credentials of the individual solicitor who will be dealing with the new matter and that you are discerning in your selection. In the context of professional negligence claims, and to assist you with this task, we have published a related and unbiased guide: How to find the Best Professional Negligence Solicitors
By instructing a specialist solicitor in relation to a professional negligence claim, you should reduce the amount of time and expense that will be incurred in investigating your claim and the law that applies to it. In both cases, there is considerable skill in determining what enquiries to undertake and what not to. Similarly, and in conducting your claim, there is often considerable skill required in determining which legal arguments to deploy and which not to and in the presentation of those arguments.
For these reasons, you should be aware that while a junior solicitor in a traditional law firm may be offered to you at what appears to be a comparatively modest hourly rate, inexperience, inefficiency and supervisory duplication can ultimately result in more legal expense, rather than less. Indeed, junior solicitors may well be recommended to you because they are more profitable for the firm concerned, rather than because they will provide you with the highest quality of advice or best value.
2. Pre-define authority and reporting requirements
When it comes to making decisions about a case and being kept informed of developments, it is perfectly understandable that different clients will have different requirements. However, if you agree at the outset of any appointment what discretion the solicitor may exercise and with what regularity updates are required, you can save time and money.
Invariably, the less discretion given to a solicitor, and the more time spent reporting to you, the greater your costs will be. However, this can be adjusted over time, perhaps to reflect an increase in trust or a change in your circumstances.
You can also reduce legal costs by agreeing the format that updates and reports should take. Advising by telephone is often quicker and cheaper than providing written advice. However, where the issues are complex and/or numerous, advice in writing can afford you greater time for reflection, as well as provide you with a clear paper trail should any later audit be required.
3. Provide multiple documents in good order
Professional negligence claims frequently involve a considerable amount of underlying paperwork, either in the form of correspondence or legal/technical documents. To advise on them, it will often be necessary for a solicitor to undertake a forensic examination of these documents in order to establish clearly and chronologically what background events have resulted in your financial loss and to establish which of those events are material to your claim.
The process of obtaining and collating documents can be extremely time consuming and, in turn, can add substantially to the costs of investigating a professional negligence claim. Therefore, identifying the background documents in your possession, ingathering documents in the possession of third parties and presenting those documents to your solicitor in a clear and chronological order can result in a considerable cost saving.
While it may be a judgment call as to whether or not to attempt to ingather all readily available documents before instructing a solicitor, it is almost always prudent not to present the solicitor with multiple copies of the same document or, alternatively, to mark those copies clearly as duplicates.
Whether to provide underlying documents in electronic or hard copy form is often a worthwhile consideration and one that is best determined in consultation with your solicitor. There can be cost implications in each case and a range of factors to weigh up.
4. Provide clear and timely instructions
Regrettably, not all solicitors advise in clear terms and sometimes you may find it difficult to know what recommendations are actually being made and, in turn, what instructions are required. In other cases, however, if a solicitor has to chase you for instructions or seek clarification in relation to ambiguous instructions it can add unnecessary, and potentially irrecoverable, costs to your claim.
While it may seem obvious to many, you should also be aware that follow up meetings and discussions will add to your costs. In some cases, these are beneficial and can offer a clearer understanding of the issues, as well as an opportunity to explore alternative strategies. However, discussion for discussion’s sake is likely to add unnecessary costs which cannot ultimately be recovered from the professional defendant, even if your claim is successful.
5. Insist on cost estimates
As a matter of professional conduct, and in accordance with section 8.7 of the Code of Conduct for solicitors published by the Solicitors Regulation Authority, all clients must receive the best possible information, both at the time of engagement and when appropriate as their matter progresses, about the likely overall cost of their matter.
In professional negligence claims, as in other types of specialist litigation where the conduct and duration of the claim can be heavily influenced by the actions of the opposing party and by the court, it can be extremely difficult to stipulate with certainty what the eventual costs will be. However, it should be possible to provide you with a reasonable estimate of the costs involved, based on a number of assumptions if necessary.
The advantages of a cost estimate are numerous. In terms of reducing costs, and while it can be time consuming and costly to produce a detailed estimate, this usually puts the issue of costs firmly in the mind of the solicitor and client. It also allows for an empirical review to be undertaken, particularly if an over-run occurs. Because cost estimates can serve to manage expectations, they should also reduce the potential for cost disputes, which themselves can and do give rise to additional cost and expense.
While it may be possible to agree a fixed or capped fee in relation to a specific litigation task and with a view to reducing potential costs, you should note that such arrangements are distinct from a cost estimate. While the latter operates as a guide to the costs likely to be incurred, it does not by itself limit your liability to such costs.
Professional negligence claims are renowned for being more complex than other, more routine, forms of litigation and can often involve a front-loading of costs. However, equipped with our above tips, we sincerely hope that you will be able to obtain the legal advice you need with greater cost efficiency and satisfaction than you might otherwise have done before.