Communication between the lawyer and the client requires a balance between the delivery of information on one hand, and careful time management on the other.
The provision of legal services can be very labour-intensive, and lawyers have traditionally charged on the basis of time spent on a client’s matter.
It is a similar situation where the lawyer charges on an item-by-item basis in accordance with the Practitioner Remuneration Order. For example, the Practitioner Remuneration Order allows a lawyer to charge $20.80 just for making an appointment by telephone (see Item 11 of the Order). Obviously, making telephone calls to the lawyer who charges item-by-item can become very expensive if the client is not careful.
There is a third way for lawyers to charge for their services, and this is to charge a fixed-fee for a standard legal matter where much of the work and time associated with the matter can be accurately estimated. We have found that the use of technology, combined with good management systems, has allowed us to break free of time-billing and item-by-item billing, and to offer a conveyancing service that combines the benefits of full lawyer legal representation with the certainty of an up-front fixed fee.
However, in order to make fixed-fee legal representation work, we must ensure that our human resources (i.e. staff time) are used effectively, by regulating the time spent on each individual transaction, avoiding unnecessary distractions and concentrating on keeping matters on track. This is where the use of alternative means of client communication becomes important.
The purpose of these FAQ is not to prepare you for the charging of additional costs, but to reduce the likelihood of our having to do so. We hope that by drawing your attention to some of the difficulties we can experience when providing a fixed-fee conveyancing service, we can rely on you to ensure that communication with us will be kept to a appropriate level, enabling us to focus on the completion of your matter and the prevention of costly problems.
How will you communicate with me during my fixed-fee conveyancing transaction?
We use hard-copy letters to provide you with initial legal advice and information, and when we are sending hard-copy documents for your attention. At various stages of the conveyancing process we may send letters with important advice or information. Please retain all letters and emails sent to you – they are an important reference. We suggest that you should keep all letters received, as a record of the information we have provided to you.
The person handling your matter may want to discuss something with you while your file is open on their desk, and the most effective form of communication in this situation is the telephone.
If the matter is not urgent, or requires a considered response from you, an email may be sent. Email may also be used to update or remind you about something, or to request your assistance.
Our website and FAQs
We also use our website for communication purposes. Because there are many aspects of conveyancing that are the same for every transaction, we have developed an extensive and informative website. The use of our internet-based facilities allows us to offer a fixed-fee conveyancing service, while still providing our clients with the information they need. For example, a client who needs information about "cooling off" will be advised to read the Cooling Off FAQ section of our website, and a client with questions about buying "off-the-plan" will be directed to our Off The Plan FAQ.
The use of FAQs to answer client questions has enormous benefits, beyond saving time. FAQs allow us to provide very detailed information without having to write unique letters or emails to each client who asks the same question. In addition, it allows us to constantly update the information provided on our website, so that a client who returns after a period of time will have the benefit of any recent amendments or additions. Finally, the FAQs ensure that information is delivered with precision, and with hyperlinks to additional relevant information.
We are constantly updating and adding to our FAQs, and we would welcome your recommendations as to other topics to be included.
How can I communicate with you during my fixed-fee conveyancing transaction?
Email is the best means of communication. This is because emails allow us to keep a precise record of what has been said during our communications, particularly if we are giving legal advice.
Efficient use of email
In the interests of efficiency, we do request that you follow our protocols when communicating by email:
- Emails should be addressed to the person in charge of your file (i.e. NOT to firstname.lastname@example.org).
- The subject line of your email MUST include your surname and file reference number (e.g. SMITH 2142N).
- Emails should be kept as short as possible. Some clients have used email to ask long lists of hypothetical questions, for which a proper response would require hours of research and many pages of writing. In such cases we have had to confine our response to just one or two pertinent questions.
- While emails are checked regularly, responses may not be immediate. We reply to emails promptly, but on a "triage" basis.
- If you have not received a response within 24 hours, you should assume that we have not received your email.
Written letters are also good, as they form part of the file record. However, we may respond by telephone or email instead of hard-copy.
We discourage the use of faxes, as they are often unclear or incomplete, and they are difficult to reply to (privacy issues arise when we do not know who may be receiving confidential information at your fax machine).
Telephone communication allows us to deal with time-critical issues quickly and effectively. However, if not used carefully, the telephone can seriously hamper our efficiency. Accordingly, we have developed the following protocols for telephone communication.
Please avoid "cold" telephone calls
We try to discourage "cold" telephone calls, simply because they are very distracting and labour-intensive. A cold telephone call is where a client calls unexpectedly for a non-urgent matter. Examples of "cold" telephone calls include:
"I’m just calling to see how things are going."
"I want to ask you a couple of questions about my matter."
In order to answer a "cold" telephone call, a staff member must stop what they are doing, answer the telephone, engage in a conversation with the caller, retrieve the client’s file, and then make a written record of what was discussed during the telephone call. This often causes unnecessary delay in the matter the staff member is currently dealing with, and creates a ripple effect through other matters waiting for attention.
Conveyancing is time-critical, and our staff members allocate time to matters according to the time constraints applicable to the matters they are dealing with. For example, a client who wants to cancel their purchase during the cooling off period must be given priority over a "cold" telephone call.
We like each client to be comfortable in the knowledge that our staff will be able give their matter close attention at the critical stages, without being distracted by cold calls.
Replying by telephone
Sometimes a staff member will contact you by telephone while they are working on your matter. We request that, when replying to a telephone call you have received from us, you do so as quickly as possible. You should immediately tell the person who answers the telephone that you are returning a call, and ask to be put through to the person who called you.
Prompt telephone replies allow us to complete matters efficiently and on time. Delayed telephone replies can require follow-up calls, and may create situations of urgency.
Urgent telephone calls
If you need immediate assistance or advice you should call us straight away. Urgent telephone calls are very important to us, as they allow us to deal with important issues before they become problems, and they can give us an opportunity to reassure you if you have become seriously worried about something. We NEVER charge additional costs for urgent telephone calls.
However, we do urge our clients to seriously consider whether a matter is truly urgent or not. For example, the following are truly urgent matters:
"The information I gave you a few minutes ago is wrong, and I want to correct it."
"My finance has been refused, and I have to cancel the contract."
"I have to pay the deposit by today, but I don’t have enough money available."
The following are NOT urgent matters:
"I haven’t got time to send an email, and I want to know if I can change the settlement date."
"I only have five minutes left on my lunch-break and I want you to fax me a document."
"My mortgage broker/real estate agent told me to get you to call him urgently." (See "What if my lender wants me to ask you about something?" below.)
If you are not sure if the matter is urgent or not, assume that it is urgent and call us – don’t take any risks! You will NEVER be charged additional costs for calling us if you feel you need urgent assistance.
What do the Professional Conduct and Practice Rules say about client communication?
The Professional Conduct and Practice Rules 2005 require lawyers to maintain effective, timely and courteous communication with clients. Our policies and protocols have been developed so as to ensure that our clients are well-informed and properly advised on their rights and responsibilities, and the progress of their matter.
Will one person be handling my matter, or do I have to deal with lots of different people?
An experienced conveyancer will be responsible for the day-to-day dealings with your matter, and you will deal with the same conveyancer until settlement. Sometimes one of our lawyers may communicate directly with you, but generally the conveyancer with carriage of your matter will provide all legal advice and information.
Our lawyers generally operate in the background, researching and updating the information and advice our firm provides, supporting and assisting conveyancing staff, and becoming directly involved with individual matters on an as-needed basis.
Will I be able to deal with an actual lawyer if I want to?
It depends on the circumstances. We cannot allocate a lawyer to a matter unnecessarily, but where unusual situations arise or complex legal issues have to be considered and advised upon, one of our lawyers will become personally involved. However, any client who requests to speak
personally with a lawyer is entitled to do so, and will never be refused.
Can I call or email anytime that I have a question?
As discussed above, our efficiency is severely hampered when clients ring or email us with questions other than in circumstances of urgency. Instead of ringing or emailing us, here are some ways to get the information you need:
- Read through the letter(s) we have already sent to you.
We used to have clients ringing up to ask questions that had already been answered in our first letter. (We even had clients tell us that they had not read the first letter because it contained too much information!)
- Read the "What Happens Next" section at the end of each standard letter.
We have added a box at the end of each standard letter, titled "What Happens Next". The purpose of this is to provide a link between the information contained in the letter and the next stage of your transaction, so that you will know what to expect. In most cases there will be nothing for you to do until the week before settlement.
- Visit our website and read through the FAQs.
We have addressed the most commonly asked questions, and added more of our own, to provide you with a comprehensive and detailed explanation of the most important issues associated with your conveyancing transaction.
- Ask the right person the right question.
We cannot answer questions about your bank’s lending procedures, why the real estate agent is over-charging you, or whether the State Revenue Office will accept your application for a concession. These questions must be directed to the parties responsible for making final decisions about such matters.
- Ask us an URGENT question.
Remember, if you have an urgent question you are entitled to call or email us about it immediately, and you will NOT be charged additional costs.
Who determines whether a question is genuinely "urgent"? You do. If it’s urgent to you, then it’s urgent to us. It’s our job to ensure that you feel safe and comfortable, and most of the time a quick and simple telephone conversation will confirm that everything is OK.
However, we must add an important qualification to this: We will not be drawn into arguments with real estate agents, mortgage brokers, or bank representatives. (See "The bank tells me one thing, you tell me another, and I’m getting confused with it all, can you sort it out for me?" below) If you call or email us with an "urgent" question, and we explain the situation and advise you that everything is OK, we are entitled to regard the matter as having been dealt with.
How will I know what to do next?
Each letter you receive from us includes a concluding "What Happens Next" section, which advises you as to the next stage in the conveyancing process. Our website also includes details of the conveyancing process, so that you will know about the basic stages.
If something unusual happens with your matter we will be in constant communication with you until the issue is resolved and your matter is back on track.
How will I know how my matter is progressing?
You can assume that everything is progressing appropriately unless you have reason to believe otherwise. As an accredited LAW 9000 Legal Best Practice law firm, we have very strict systems and procedures in place to ensure that problems are dealt with proactively. In most cases, we can anticipate a problem and head it off before it requires any input from you. We will definitely call you if there is a problem and your instructions are required.
What if the real estate agent wants me to ask you about something?
Real estate agent involvement in the conveyancing stage of a real estate transaction often creates problems. Most of the problems stem from the fact that the real estate agent is paid a commission, and this commission is usually deducted from the deposit paid by the purchaser. Problems can also arise during the time period between the day of the sale, and the contract becoming unconditional.
The real estate agent should have NO FURTHER CONTACT with a client after the purchaser has been introduced to the property and the real estate agent has been given the details of the client’s legal representative. All contact with either party should be through their respective legal representatives.
Many real estate agents attempt to hurry things along, or to influence the conduct of the parties by making direct contact and giving "advice". Sometimes the real estate agent will attempt to use the clients as a means of controlling transaction.
If the real estate agent asks you to contact us about something, you should politely inform the real estate agent that you are legally represented, and that he or she should contact your legal representative. We will then be in a position to ensure that the real estate agent does not jeopardise your legal position or the transaction.
What if my lender wants me to ask you about something?
Obtaining finance from a bank involves a personal relationship between you and the bank you have chosen:
- You will have chosen your bank because your bank has offered you an attractive loan product.
- Your bank has accepted you as a customer because you have told the bank that you can satisfy its lending criteria.
- You have agreed with your bank that you will do certain things before it advances loan funds to you.
The choosing of your bank, the satisfying of the agreement you have made with your bank, and your bank’s policies and procedures associated with the providing of settlement funds are NOT part of the conveyancing transaction, and are not matters that are included in our fixed-fee conveyancing service.
If your lender informs you that you must attend to certain tasks, provide it with documents or make special arrangements before it will book your settlement with us, it will remain your responsibility to ensure that your lender is able to provide settlement funds on time.
While we will liaise with your bank for the purposes of arranging settlement, any issues that arise to prevent the bank from accepting our settlement booking must be attended to by you. Delays of this nature usually relate to your mortgage documents not be prepared on time, not being returned on time or errors made by the bank in the preparation of the mortgage documents.Communication with your bank should be dealt with as follows:
- If your bank requires you to attend to certain tasks, you should attend to them personally and without delay.
- If your bank asks you to obtain any documents or information from us, you should inform your bank to make direct contact with us. We will inform you of any tasks your bank requests through us, and any additional costs associated with our attending to these tasks. This ensures that your bank cannot have tasks performed at your cost without your knowledge. Some banks will attempt to save costs by having clients’ lawyers perform some of its tasks at the client’s expense:
Banks are notorious for presenting a friendly face when attracting new customers, and to change completely after the customer has been secured as a client of the bank. Many banks, and particularly the smaller lending institutions, will attempt to save on costs by having client’s lawyer perform tasks on behalf of the bank, particularly if a mistake has been made by the bank and further work is required to rectify the consequent problems. The bank assumes that a lawyer who charges on a time-billing basis, or on an item-by-item basis, will be only too pleased to have the opportunity to charge fees for work performed on behalf of the client’s bank. (For example, see Bully Banks cost Battlers $Millions)
I have been wondering about what will happen if something goes wrong, can I talk to you about it?
Some clients worry about everything, and some will think up some truly bizarre hypothetical situations. This can become a problem if the client telephone or emails us with a list of "scenarios" and asks us to explain what his or her legal position would be in any of the scenarios presented, and what action we would take to assist.
While we are ready to assist and advise on the options available to you in a given situation as part of our fixed-fee service, we cannot respond to questions about hypothetical situations.
For example, if you contact us and tell us, "I have just been told that the vendor has died, and that this will probably delay settlement, what happens now?" we will provide you with a full explanation as to your legal position and the options available to you. We will then act on your instructions to achieve the best possible outcome.
However, if you contact and ask, "What would happen if the vendor were to die suddenly?" we would have to inform you that this is a hypothetical situation and a response would attract additional fees charged on a time-billed basis.
I don’t have the time to do some of these things, and I would like you to do them for me.
This is a problem that can arise where the client feels that anything that is even remotely related to the purchase or sale of their property is a matter for us to deal with. (See "Why do I have to do these things, isn’t that what I’m paying you for?" below.)
The first comment to be made at this point is that we NEVER ask a client to do anything that is properly our role. We accept full professional responsibility for every aspect of our conveyancing services, and we perform each and every task that forms part of a standard conveyancing matter.
If we have advised you that you will need to attend to certain tasks, it is because these tasks are NOT standard matters, and that they are not included in our fixed-fee. In most cases, these will be tasks that require your personal attention and for which we are unable to assume responsibility.
Where the need arises for a non-standard task to be undertaken, and it is appropriate for us to deal with it, we will advise you of the need and the associated cost. Some examples:
- A real estate agent who would not refund a client’s deposit after the client had cooled off, requiring the drafting of a letter of demand.
- A vendor who removed wrought iron gates from the purchased property the day before settlement, requiring urgent negotiations on the client’s behalf.
- A vendor who was unable settle on time, requiring negotiation and a licence agreement to allow the purchaser to take occupation of the property.
However, if the task is not one that we feel is appropriate for us to undertake in the circumstances, we will inform you that we cannot assist you with it, and that it will remain your responsibility to ensure that it is attended to. Some examples:
- Purchaser client’s bank requires the client to obtain an insurance Certificate of Currency from the vendor’s insurer.
- Vendor client has promised the purchaser that she will obtain a Certificate of Final Inspection from the council and deliver it to the purchaser before settlement.
- Purchaser client intends to lease the purchased property, and requires landlord information and forms from Consumer Affairs Victoria.
Can you chase up the other parties for me, and tell me what’s going on with them?
This is a common question, usually asked when settlement is delayed by the other party, and the frustrated client does not want to exercise their option to end the contract. Clients who make this request have usually forgotten that everyone involved in the transaction is trying to get it settled as soon as possible, and that pestering and badgering the other party will not assist. After all, no-one is paid or accommodated until the transaction has been finalised.
Common examples include:
- Off-the-plan purchases, where the real estate agent may have promised an early settlement, but there has been a delay in registration of the plan of subdivision (See "Off The Plan FAQ").
- Delay where the vendor has difficulty in having caveats removed or mortgages discharged in time for settlement.
- Death of a vendor, where the vendor’s executor experiences difficulties in having probate granted (in one case the delay was over 9 months).
The bank tells me one thing, you tell me another, and I’m getting confused with it all, can you talk to the bank and sort it out for me?
We cannot become the "meat in the sandwich" if you receive a conflicting explanation from your lender, real estate agent, mortgage-broker or anyone else who advises you regarding your transaction. We will provide you with our legal advice, but then it is up to you as to whether you act on it or not.
This problem is surprisingly common, and is best explained by reference to an anecdote:
Our client engaged us for the conveyancing of a property purchase. We received a fax from the vendor’s lawyer, querying our client’s failure to pay the deposit by the due date.
We contacted the client and advised her to pay the deposit immediately, in accordance with the promise she had made in her contract. The client explained that her mortgage broker had advised her not to pay the deposit until such time as her home loan had been unconditionally approved, because she would have to have the deposit refunded if the loan was declined.
We explained to the client that she would be in breach of the contract if she failed to pay the deposit by the due date (see a full explanation of this issue at "Subject to Finance FAQ"), and we assumed that the urgency of the situation had passed because of the legal advice we had provided to the client.
Our client spoke with her mortgage broker again, and then called us with an urgent question, "My mortgage broker is telling me one thing, you are telling me another, and I’m getting confused with it all, can you call him and sort it out for me."
Our client was creating her own problem because she would not accept our advice. We had to explain to her that we had been engaged to provide her with conveyancing services, which included giving her sound legal advice. Having given her our advice, it was our expectation that she would take our advice into account when making her decision on how to handle the situation. It was not up to us to attempt to convince the mortgage broker that he was wrong, and to then have him confirm to our client that he now agrees with us.
The mortgage broker had been extremely foolish in offering our client legal advice when he was not qualified to do so, and he had put himself and our client at risk by offering incorrect advice. However, our client had been even more foolish. She had been given legal advice by her lawyers and yet she was still listening to the mortgage broker.
Eventually the client decided to follow our advice, and the situation was saved.
Lawyers Conveyancing is a law firm, and when we provide legal advice we do so in the expectation that it will be acted upon. We accept full responsibility for the legal advice we give, and we carry full professional indemnity insurance. If a client chooses to obtain conflicting advice from a non-lawyer she is quite entitled to do so, but she is not entitled to have us enter into a dispute with a third party or to have us attempt to provide that third party with a legal education as part of our fixed-fee conveyancing service.
Why do I have to do these things, isn’t that what I’m paying you for?
We have included this question as an FAQ because it raises a very important issue regarding fixed-fee legal services.
Some clients assume that a fixed-fee means that the client has the free use of a lawyer or legal professional for the duration of their conveyancing matter, and that they are entitled to call upon our staff to provide legal advice on a variety of unrelated legal questions, or to attend to tasks that are not part of the conveyancing transaction.
Common examples include:
- Requesting Wills, Powers of Attorney, Licence Agreements, Tenancy Agreements etc. to be drafted as part of the conveyancing service.
- Transferring title from the name of a deceased person to the name of the vendor (requiring a Grant of Probate).
- Wanting us to obtain various forms or documents from government, local government and other authorities.
- Running errands, such as delivering or collecting documents to banks or government departments on behalf of the client.
- Representing the client in their dealings with their bank as part of the conveyancing service.
- Booking accommodation on behalf of the client if settlement fails and the client cannot occupy the purchased property.
- Representing the client in a dispute with the real estate agent.
Who will help me if things go wrong and I can’t be contacted about costs?
We will. We will NEVER knowingly leave you exposed to trouble. We will always act immediately and decisively on your behalf in order to prevent trouble or to resolve any issues that may arise, even if we are unable to obtain your instructions in time.
It should be noted that few matters attract additional costs, and we tend to err on the side of generosity when deciding whether or not additional costs should be charged.
What if I am overseas or travelling?
If you warn us in advance that you will be travelling in Australia and difficult contact, or travelling overseas, we will advise you to appoint an Attorney to act on your behalf. A Power of Attorney is a document which appoints another person to "stand in your shoes" to make decisions and to sign documents for you in your absence.
However, in most cases we have no difficulty in communicating with clients by email anywhere in the world.