Did downsizing during the recession leave many firms short of competent lawyers?

Here’s a dilemma: do you go back to your client and tell him that the fee you quoted for the job has doubled, in the process making yourself appear unprofessional?

Or do you tell the managing partner that you spent eight hours on a matter, but billed only for four – in the process doing yourself no favours?

That’s an increasingly common dilemma, some solicitors are complaining. Here’s one example, from a property lawyer: ‘He kept insisting on amendments to a contract that were against his client’s interests,’ he tells me. ‘Eventually, I worked out that he was simply deleting everything from the contract that he couldn’t understand. It could have cost his client 20% of the sale price.’

An extreme example of incompetence, perhaps, or part of a growing trend where law firms that downsized during the recession are now telling inexperienced non-specialists to take on jobs for which they are unqualified?

My contact suspects the latter and says that it is costing his firm and his clients money. ‘I tell my client that it’s a straightforward transaction and arrange to bill him accordingly. But the job stretches and stretches because the solicitor on the other side doesn’t know what he or she is doing. Someone has to pick up the inflated bill.’

My contact was dealing with a two-solicitor firm and the person getting it all wrong was not named as one of them. However, it’s not just small firms. Another contact tells me that the firm on the other side was a well-known national one.

‘The problem,’ she says, ‘was the solicitor kept talking over me and refusing to negotiate because he was convinced he was right and I was wrong. I managed to get in touch with the leader of his team who, it transpired, was his supervising partner.

‘He was newly qualified and keen to make his mark, but was out of his depth. The partner quickly sorted things, which was good, but the real issue is this: why had he been cut loose in the first place? Shouldn’t a more experienced solicitor have been holding his hand?’

Here are other examples. There was the practitioner who produced the wrong documents not just once, but three times – leaving the lawyer on the other side, the one who complained to me, with three hours of non-billable re-drafting. And there was another practitioner - a property transaction again - who while selling office premises produced a contract for the sale of a lock-up off-licence.

It’s hard to believe these are isolated cases. What do other solicitors do to get around the problem? How do you deal with the incompetent while keeping your clients and firm on side?

Jonathan Rayner is Gazette staff writer