Choosing the Right Lawyer for Your Business
Although they have personal physicians and routinely engage accountants and other professionals, when it comes to finding a lawyer, many businesspeople are dumbstruck. They dislike lawyers, balk at their cost, and fear that lawyers will overcomplicate and interfere with the growth of their business.
To the contrary, a lawyer’s role is to ensure that a company does not become derailed from the entrepreneur’s desired destination. A business lawyer is a vital member of the team, and it is important that the lawyer work closely with the entrepreneur and the accountant. Businesses should seek legal assistance for major transactions and government compliance problems. At a minimum, you should have a lawyer perform a legal audit annually to review all of your business documents. By practicing preventive law and consulting an attorney before changing your legal position, you can save money and avoid pitfalls.
In this Quick-Read you will find:
- When to hire an attorney.
- Methods for finding an attorney.
- Tips for interviewing an attorney.
When to hire an attorney
Entrepreneurs are sometimes reluctant to hire attorneys because they view legal services as duplicative or unnecessary to the daily operation of the business. For example, entrepreneurs aware that they already are being billed for a bank attorney’s work in preparing loan documents will mistakenly not pay their own attorney to review the loan materials and look out for the entrepreneur’s best interests.
Although not a definitive list, you need a lawyer to:
- Acquire or sell your business.
- Obtain public or private financing.
- Negotiate business and employment contracts.
- Draft non-compete clauses.
- Obtain trademarks and patents and guard trade secrets.
- Handle regulatory compliance with ERISA, SEC (securities) and EPA (environmental).
- Draft internal business policies and procedures.
- Prepare basic documents such as minutes of formal meetings, articles of incorporation and bylaws.
- File tax returns, licenses and reports.
- Oversee corporate structuring or restructuring.
- Handle franchise and distributorship issues.
- Manage pending or potential litigation.
Where to find an attorney
Many businesspeople do not know where to search for the right lawyer, but word-of-mouth is a good starting point. Ask relatives, friends and business associates to recommend an attorney.
Other sources include:
- The staff of a trade or professional organization or chamber of commerce can offer a referral. In some instances, these organizations may offer a reduced group rate for legal services.
- Contact your local or state bar association. Additionally, explore prepaid legal service plans, which are specifically designed for small businesses. These plans usually offer unlimited telephone consultations with a lawyer and are good resources for routine legal tasks, such as drafting basic contracts and equipment leases.
- If you have any lawyer or paralegal acquaintances, ask if they can recommend someone with the specialization you need.
Choosing what kind of lawyer to retain is critical. Consider the convenience of the attorney’s office location and his or her fee structure, but his or her competence should be the most important factor. Hiring a large law firm will expose you to top legal talent with ample resources and expertise in numerous fields of law, but comes at a high price.
Think of what a general practitioner does for your health. Ideally, a small- to mid-size business should find a "general counsel" who has a solid grounding in many areas of law, including corporate law, partnership law, labor relations and employment law, tax, contracts and debt collection. Cultivating a long-term relationship with a general business lawyer could result in reduced legal costs over time because the lawyer does not have to spend time acquiring background information on your company before performing each legal task.
Just as you would for any other business transaction, it is wise to do the following:
- Obtain bids for legal services. Make sure any hourly rate quoted by a lawyer includes overhead expenses such as secretarial time.
- Interview two or three lawyers before making your selection. It is important that you feel comfortable confiding in the lawyer so that he or she would have the information necessary to resolve any legal problem at issue.
- Steer clear of lawyers who procrastinate, seem overextended, or who are either overly aggressive in favoring costly litigation or too willing to capitulate your position in a legal dispute.
- After you interview each lawyer, write down your impressions of how well the lawyer listened to you, evaluated the strengths and weaknesses of your legal position, demonstrated knowledge of the applicable law, and adequately explained fee structure and billing practices.
- Having a good attorney-client relationship requires you to be a good client. Be clear with your lawyer about your objectives and expectations, and don’t withhold relevant information.
Remember, any lawyer you hire is obligated to:
- Present you with options and their consequences and offer recommendations concerning legal issues.
- Demonstrate a duty of loyalty by not representing a client whose interests conflict with yours.
- Protect all legal rights to which you are entitled.
- Follow your lawful directions.
REAL-LIFE EXAMPLE [top]
Gregg Cole of Beanstalk Internet found his attorney by talking to his customers and asking about their experience with their attorney selection. Mr. Cole found that his company’s clients were often eager to share their experiences with finding and retaining a lawyer. "I usually gave my customers technical guidance beyond the scope of the current job. They in turn were more than willing to share their thoughts on legal advice with me."
Beanstalk also had several law offices as customers. This gave them the opportunity to informally interview different lawyers in addition to gaining information about local attorney rates and expenses.
Beanstalk spent 6 months in their search to find a local attorney. Their choice: a new customer who also turned out to be an attorney and a savvy Internet user. "The fact that he understood our business made it easier to work with him, but we might not have found him if it hadn’t been from those informal conversations with other business owners."
DO IT [top]
A business attorney should be willing to give you an initial free consultation. Following are 11 questions you should ask prospective lawyers:
- Have you ever represented anyone in my industry? (Obtain references.)
- What is your policy on returning phone calls from clients? How long should I expect it to take for you to get back to me when I call you?
- Would I be dealing with lawyers other than you? Who? Why?
- What are your areas of practice, and what percentage of your time is spent in each area?
- How long have you been practicing law?
- What is your law school education?
- Are most of your clients individuals or businesses?
- How will I be kept apprised of progress in any lawsuit in which I am involved?
- Do you charge a retainer? How much?
- How are your fees assessed? Hourly? Flat rate? Minimum billing units?
- Does your fee agreement entitle you to raise your rates during your representation of me?
Competent Counsel by Erwin Cherovsky (Wiley, 1992).
How to Get the Best Legal Help for Your Business (at the Lowest Possible Cost) by Mead Hedglon (McGraw-Hill, 1992).
Taming the Lawyers: What to Expect in a Lawsuit and How to Make Sure Your Attorney Gets Results by Kenneth Menendez (Silver Lake, 1999). Chapter 5: "How to Hire the Right Lawyer," provides selection criteria.
Lawyer Directory from LexisNexis
Lawyers in the Martindale Directory
Writer: Sheldon Toplitt