Google Improves Patent Search Engine
Of course, searching is a task best left to a professional, but there is no reason you can't have a dig around yourself. You can then approach your patent attorney with some understanding of what is happening in your field of endeavour. In some cases, you may even save yourself a significant sum of money, if your search has been thorough.
Google (r) has recently upgraded their search engine. You can read more about it here. When you open a page containing details of a patent, there is now a button labelled "Prior Art Finder" that allows you to search multiple sources for related content that existed at the time the application for the patent was filed.
One of the sources is the European patent office which stores the details of over 70 million patents. At this stage, the Google Patent Search is not a viable alternative to Espacenet, but it is becoming an excellent place to start your adventure. For more on searching read this post.