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Should I change my family lawyer?

Podcast Episode by Pearsons Lawyers
3 January 2021

(Transcription)

Joe Schepis:
Hello, I’m Joe Schepis.

Leanne Abela:
And I’m Leanne Abela.

Joe Schepis:
And welcome to Pearsons Law.

Leanne Abela:
Today’s podcast is on the topic, should I change lawyers? And Joe, you and I, over the last 35 years have had many clients who’ve come to us, asking us whether or not they should be changing lawyers and coming for a second opinion. And I think they come for the second opinion because we give them that first free appointment. And they’ve got nothing to lose by getting that second opinion. So, sometimes I’ll be at a family function or a party, and someone will say, “Hey, my cousin’s got a lawyer. This is what they’re being told. What are your recon?” Or they themselves will tell me and I’ll say, “Listen, I don’t have my notebook here. And I don’t actually have my legal brain here. I’m at a social function. Why don’t you come and see me in the office? It’s free. And I’ll give you my opinion.”

Leanne Abela:
And I don’t know what you do, Joe. But when they come in, the client, for a second opinion, I always say, “Listen, don’t tell me the name of your lawyer. Don’t tell me the opinion you’ve got. I want to cold case it. I want to give it to you with fresh eyes, without any biased view based on what you’ve already been told. I don’t want to be defending myself on the opinion that I give you. So, once I tell you what I think you’re worth, then you tell me what you’ve been advised. And I’ll tell you where the holes in that argument are. Or I might say to you, listen, you’ve been given great advice. You just don’t
want to hear it. Or you just don’t want to listen to what you need to be told.” How do you manage it?

Joe Schepis:
I do exactly the same thing. I tell clients that it’s important to get a second opinion, just so that they know that the advice they’re getting is accurate and they’re on the right path. Most of the time they are, but sometimes they’re not for a variety of reasons. And like we did this morning with your client when they came in, you call me in, I call you in, give us a very quick scenario, the facts situation, where do you think the percentage sits? Where do you think this should be?

Leanne Abela:
Yeah, and clients love that, don’t they?

Joe Schepis:
They absolutely love it. They know that. And I don’t know, you don’t tell me what you’re thinking, but I think in all the cases we’ve done, we’ve hardly ever disagreed. Sometimes we have a slight-

Leanne Abela:
5%.

Joe Schepis:
… variance. 5% at max.

Leanne Abela:
5%, yeah. So, there’s always a second head here because there’s so many family lawyers who, what we’ll do in the first appointment is we’ll get that second opinion on the spot.

Joe Schepis:
Yeah, and what clients love is that, when they come in for the second opinion, we have the 30 minutes free of charge. They can get a second opinion, no obligation, not costs. And they can walk out comfortably knowing where they’re at and where they’re going.

Leanne Abela:
So, for some people, they’re not sure whether or not they even need to get that second opinion. And I think that there are some alarm bells and some triggers, and some things that you, as a client, can know about to let you or to give you an indication that you perhaps should be getting their second opinion now.

Joe Schepis:
Yeah. I mean, sometimes clients come in and let’s say that they just don’t understand the lawyer. They feel that their lawyer is not communicating with them. And there are plenty of lawyers out there that don’t communicate effectively for a variety of reasons, including about cost, they don’t get regular bills. And it’s very important the clients are comfortable with their lawyer. They can communicate with their lawyer, that their lawyer deals with the issues, that the client knows where they’re going and why they’re going there. And if the client’s got questions, doesn’t matter how silly or stupid they might sound. That’s their life. They’re entitled to know what the answer to their questions are.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah. I’ve had clients who’ve come in for that first appointment. And they have said to me, “Look, you’ve taught me more in the first appointment, that’s for free in half an hour or 45 minutes, than I have been told through 5, 10, 15 visits with my lawyer.” And I think that clear start strategy is what you’re looking for. So, if your current case, or your matter with your lawyer has been going for a while, but you still don’t have a clear indication of what you’re entitled to. Then I think it’s time to get a second opinion, because by the first or second appointment, you really should know roughly what percentage you’re entitled to and know roughly what assets you may or may not be able to keep. There are those exceptional cases. I had one yesterday where my client wasn’t completely clear about what assets were in the company name or in the trust.

Leanne Abela:
She wasn’t absolutely clear about how much money her husband was making through these various entities. Well, in that instance, you kind of know roughly what the client will get, but not exactly. And you’ll only know that through discovery, but generally after the first few visits or the first few phone calls or the first few instances you’ll know fairly clearly. So, if your lawyer is not able to tell you within a range, then perhaps that lawyer doesn’t practice exclusively in family law, or perhaps that lawyer doesn’t have a … had a lot of experience because they haven’t had quite a number of cases, because volume matters, so that they’re in a position to be able to advise you.

Leanne Abela:
So, I think the first thing you should look for is, are you clear about what it is you’re going for and you’re entitled to? And do you know that fairly close to the start of your case? Because otherwise you’re plowing lots of money into a matter when the proposal that’s already been put by the other party might be more than reasonable. And so from there on, it’s not commercial and you’re wasting money. So, would you agree that, that’s one of the-

Joe Schepis:
100%. And sometimes there is no strategy and clients are lost. They don’t actually know what they’re going for. And they’re involved in negotiations or litigation. They’re just going around and around in circles with endless discovery and more discovery, more discovery, but there’s no strategy. Nobody’s actually sat down and said, this is what we’re doing. This is why we’re doing it. And this is where we hope to be and what we hope to achieve. And it’s very important that you know that. I mean, we tell clients that within the first half hour consultation, these are roughly where you should be at.

Joe Schepis:
And sometimes lawyers can get very busy. They don’t pay attention to matters, and they spend a lot of time negotiating and not really understanding why they’re asking questions, why they’re asking for documents, not understanding the big picture. It’s important that all of these things are done for a reason. At the end of the day, this is an economic, although it’s a very emotional time, it’s an economic decision because what you’re doing is you’re spending money to get a property settlement usually. And therefore you want to know that the money you’re spending is worthwhile. I say to my clients, there’s no point in spending money unless, pretty much, you’re guaranteed to get $3 back for each dollar you’re investing. But at the end of the day there’s risks as well. And there are delays. So, if you’re going to spend $10,000, you want to know that for that $10,000, you’re going to get at least more than $30,000 in return for it.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah. So, I guess one of the first alarm bells should be clear communication. Do you understand what you’re entitled to and how you’re going to get it? So, the second part of the communication should be that you should be always provided with a copy of all letters, all emails, all communication, leaving the office on your behalf or letters and correspondence, leaving your file and everything that comes in on your file. You should be copied into that probably within 24 hours of it being received and contemporaneously with it being sent. If it’s being sent to the other side, it should be sent to you at the same time. If it’s being received from the other side, you should get it within 24 hours. That I think is a given. You need to have your own file, the same file your solicitor has.

Joe Schepis:
I tell my clients, I’m just the lawyer. I don’t make decisions. My job is to give you advice about the options available to you, what the repercussions of each option is, what the pros and cons of each option is. You, the client, you’re the one that makes the decision. And some clients don’t accept my advice and want to choose an option, which is not one that I recommend. It’s their life. It’s their money. It’s their property. That’s how it works. They’ve got the hand on the steering wheel. We’re just the guide. We just give them guide in the dark.

Leanne Abela:
The next trigger or the next alarm bell should be that your matter is not being dragged out. What does it mean to have a matter dragged out? Well, we know that there are long queues in the court, but other than the long queues in the court, which of course no one can control. What you need to know is, is this matter being dragged out through negotiations? Is this matter taking too long to get moving and getting responses on? Because if that’s the case, there is a course of action you can take. And the course of action you can take sometimes it’s to issue proceedings, to get a timetable issued by the court so that people have to respond, so that people have to go to the mediation table. So, that’s another thing you need to look at. How long has this dragging out for?

Joe Schepis:
And the other thing of course is, sometimes we get clients come in for a second opinion and I asked them, how much have you spent so far? And I’m sure you’ve got this experience. So, how much have you spent so far? And they say, “Oh, I don’t know. My lawyer has been acting for me for six months, seven months, a year. And I actually haven’t got a bill yet.” And I think that’s ridiculous.

Leanne Abela:
That’s a problem.

Joe Schepis:
That is a problem. How do you not know how much money you’ve invested? So, where’s the strategy then when you don’t even know how much you’re plowing into this investment. So, we have a policy where we ran the bills regularly, fortnightly, monthly. So, clients are always, as part of our communication, the clients always know how much they’re spending, know how much they’ve spent to date, what the next step is going to take and have a broad picture of where the cost might lie at the end of the day if the matter goes all the way to either some sort of resolution or court process. That’s another part of communication. That’s critical in family law and having any matters resolved.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah, and I find that the clients actually, it’s weird to say, isn’t it. They love the fortnightly bills. And the reason they love fortnightly bills is because they’re itemized with a date, the time, what happened, they’re itemized, clear, understandable bills. They come fortnightly and they’re completely abreast. And on top of what it’s costing them. Even for those clients who were paying at the end of their case, because we do provide that service on special conditions for clients to pay when they get paid at the end of the case. We still provide monthly, quarterly itemized bills so they know what they’re up for. What are they accumulating in legal fees, even though they’re not paying it yet?

Joe Schepis:
I have clients who really appreciate that, because one, they know what it’s cost them. Two, they can budget for it so they can make it as a regular budget for them. And they can handle that rather than finding a big bill at the end of the day where they fall over backwards. So, that’s all part of that communication that’s critical and important to clients. So, talking about communication, there are a variety of reasons why communication might not be effective and timely and efficient. Sometimes solicitors and lawyers are very, very busy and just don’t pay attention to files. Sometimes they got issues of their own.

Leanne Abela:
There’s no excuse for that, though.

Joe Schepis:
No, absolutely not. Sometimes they have issues in their own personal life. Sometimes it’s mental health issues. All of these things are normal human endeavors and things that happen to people and understandable. But if these experiences are something that are impeding your timely communication with your lawyer, then you need to get a second opinion so that you know where you stand and you can get some guidance and some accurate advice about where you should be going.

Leanne Abela:
Yeah. So, ideally what you’d want in relation to any file that’s matrimonial, because it can blow up at any time and it needs to move at all times. Is that in the event that your own solicitor is on holidays or unwell, there is still somebody else in the firm, not a PA, but it’s another solicitor who is able to work on the file. And I know at our firm, we have that all the time. There is never a delay as a result of the solicitor being unavailable, because we’ll always have, what’s referred to as a 2IC or another solicitor in the firm who can pick up the file at any time. And most of them are familiar with the file, because we are familiar, generally, with each other’s files. So, that’s what you want.

Joe Schepis:
Yeah. We have a team approach and that’s the benefit to the client. So, if you want a booking with Pearsons for your free consultation, ring 1-300-699-688 and know where you stand.

Leanne Abela:
Thank you.

Joe Schepis:
Thank you for listening.

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