Tracking down a special agent

At some point, all litigation lawyers have to rely on other firms to undertake hearings on an agency basis. But finding the right firm can be the difference between a good result and a disaster.

Solicitors who offer a quality service are often frustrated to find their work impaired by the actions of a poor agent. Even where an agent gets the right result, clients can feel dissatisfied if the agent's fees are unacceptably high or if the agent fails to report back quickly.

Inevitably, this dissatisfaction will be directed at their own solicitor.

The situation is even worse where agents fail to get the expected result. Those instructing them are left with the suspicion that, had they been nearer the court and able to conduct the case themselves, the problem would not have arisen.

So what makes a good agent? The essential quality must be the ability to present the case in its best possible light and get the best possible result. But several other factors are important.

Agents should be easy to instruct. There is nothing more frustrating than phoning a potential agent and being passed around various fee earners to determine whether someone can attend court. A well-organised agency should ensure that all enquiries are referred to a co-ordinator who can provide immediate confirmation of availability for a hearing.

Some large firms will be able to guarantee attendance for hearings and regular users may be encouraged to send agency instructions without telephoning first.

Agents should acknowledge instructions in writing. Their principals may need to contact them and considerable time can be wasted if they do not know which fee earner is dealing with the hearing. A referenced acknowledgment letter prevents this difficulty and should also deal with charges so there are no nasty surprises when the agency bill is received.

Agents should ensure cases are properly allocated. Many firms offer a basic agency service for routine actions run by junior solicitors or experienced legal executives. While that is generally appropriate, firms must ensure there is a mechanism for identifying cases that require input at a more senior level or by someone with a particular specialism.

Agents should read the papers well in advance of the hearing. Where an agent has strong views on the likely outcome of an application – particularly if the application is unlikely to succeed – the agent should telephone the principal to discuss the case. This is particularly important if the perceived difficulty arises from something unusual in the way district judges deal with certain applications. The agent should also ask for any additional details required in plenty of time for the hearing.

Agents with a good relationship with the local court and judges will be in a better position to advise about practices in local courts. They can advise whether an attendance will be required if a last minute agreement is reached, and should be able to obtain urgent appointments. Also, knowing the personalities of the local judges will be useful in presenting applications effectively.

Agents should prepare cases thoroughly and be good at thinking on their feet to avoid unnecessary adjournments or delays.

Agents should report the results of hearings quickly, and this should be presented in a format acceptable for copying to clients. A full report is helpful, particularly if there is ongoing litigation, because information can be gleaned about the other parties' position from discussions before going into court or from matters raised when the case is presented. This can be invaluable and principals may have no way of finding this out unless their agents tell them.

Agents should send their bill quickly. A delay in billing can hold up a principal's interim or final bill unnecessarily.

Good agents are not always easy to find. The starting point for many lawyers is a law directory followed by a phone call to one of the larger firms in the area.

There is no foolproof way of determining a firm's ability to deal with agency work but there usually a few clues.

The manner in which a telephone enquiry is dealt with is often a good indication of the efficiency of the firm. Questions can then be asked about the firm's policy for allocation of work, charging and reporting back.

When an agent has been selected, a principal should provide detailed instructions well in advance of the hearing. Where a case is unusual, it is best that the instructing solicitor speaks to the agent as well. If a solicitor feels the application should be dealt with by a fee-earner with a particular specialism or expertise, this should be made clear at the start.

Finally, where solicitors want reporting or billing particularly quickly, this should always be made clear in the letter of instruction.