Forking out thousands of dollars for a lawyer may not deliver the best results, with the NSW Bureau of Crime Statistics and Research suggesting that Legal Aid lawyers are actually better at resolving cases quickly.
Presenting its preliminary findings to the 6th Annual Applied Research in Crime and Justice Conference, the bureau said that publicly funded cases are statistically less likely to be dealt with in a local court and people engaging their services are ultimately less likely to be committed for sentencing than privately funded lawyers.
It also said that cases represented by privately funded lawyers are more likely to end with a late guilty plea by their client.
That was despite the bureau putting controls in place to allow for the differences in the types of cases that are more commonly dealt with by each type of lawyer.
The analysis was conducted following a request from Legal Aid NSW, the bureau (known under its abbreviation BOCSAR) said, over concerns that billable hours may incentivise private lawyers to delay resolutions in order to maximise their fee earnings.
Dr Don Weatherburn (pictured), the bureau’s executive director, said the findings revealed that “the ways lawyers are paid can make a big difference to the way criminal cases are dealt with”, according to My Business sister title Lawyers Weekly.
At the beginning of the year, Source Legal founder and managing director Stanislav Roth acknowledged some of the main gripes SMEs have about lawyers, including the issue of billing.
“Clients hate knowing that when they’re talking to a lawyer, the clock is ticking,” he said.
“Do you need to get some advice over the phone? Tick, tock. Need a contract to maximise certainty and value for your business? Tick, tock. What about making a claim against a fraudulent supplier, or instigating litigation to protect your intellectual property? Tick, tock, tick, tock.”
It comes as a new online marketplace connecting businesses with freelance lawyers aims to raise $1 million in capital later in 2019.
Alifery founder Louise Hvala suggested her platform can help businesses get more value when seeking legal expertise, by connecting them with individual lawyers rather than full-service law firms.
“While other professions have fully embraced the freelance economy and are reaping the benefits, we are only now starting to see this within the legal profession. Both sides, client and expert legal freelancer, are keen to try new ways of working which fits within budgets and project scope, while suiting lifestyle choices,” said Ms Hvala.
“This is not about a race to the bottom on price; our expert legal freelancers have on average 15 years’ experience and are some of the best in their fields.
“They don’t have the bricks and mortar overheads as freelancers, and so they are able to deliver more value to our clients, which include leading law firms and ASX-listed companies, who are posting projects and accessing our freelance legal experts on an as-needed basis.”
**Update - 19 February 2019; 14:30 AEDT**
The Law Society of NSW, which was contacted to provide its response to the findings, subsequently issued a response, with its president, Elizabeth Espinosa, expressing concern that the figures “may not tell the full story”.
“The Law Society is concerned that the research may not tell the full story, and draws an unnecessary distinction between in-house solicitors and private practitioners who are undertaking legally aided work,” Ms Espinosa said.
“The study did not assess the outcomes for clients, for example, the proportion of clients found not guilty, nor any assessment of sentencing outcomes. Further, it is not immediately clear how the study dealt with charge (or offence) negotiations — many guilty pleas that are ‘late’ are to a lesser offence than that originally charged. It is not clear how this was controlled for in the study.
“Further, while the study purports to show ‘efficiency’, no analysis is made of the respective hours that in-house v private practitioners spend on dealing with a matter.”
Ms Espinosa said that the “real issue” is the under-resourcing of Legal Aid services within the state, and the flow impacts that it’s having on vulnerable people within the community.
“The caseload for legal assistance in NSW is such that, for many years, NSW Legal Aid has relied heavily on private practitioners to serve the client base. It’s the private solicitors who are often working additional unpaid legal aid hours (especially in those regional areas without a Legal Aid office) that have kept the system going for so long. This is no longer sustainable and the system is breaking down,” she said.
“I commend the work of all practitioners, private and in-house, who are working in a legal aid system that is underfunded and close to crisis. Their work is greatly valued.
“The Law Society remains undeterred in its efforts to call on the NSW government to provide substantial funding increases for legal aid as outlined in our State Election Platform.”
Ms Espinosa added: “Unless this increased funding is provided, the many issues that beset the legal assistance system, and those who work in it, will remain.
“In considering this research, the Law Society of NSW would ask that, in future, Legal Aid and BOCSAR involve the Law Society in the formulation and preparation of similar research to ensure it takes account of all the relevant factors and provides the most accurate results.”
Adam Zuchetti is the editor of My Business, and has steered the publication’s editorial direction since early 2016.