Your relationship with a small business lawyer is one of the most critical relationships you will ever develop in the startup and growth of your business. It is important that you feel empowered in that relationship.
Below are five simple tips to help you make the most out of your relationship.
1. KNOWING WHEN TO ENGAGE A LAWYER
Frequently asked question: When should I hire a lawyer?
What thrills me about this question is that it means people are thinking about it and they know that they need a lawyer.
The answer to that question is: “Right now.”
You don’t want to be scrambling to hire a lawyer when you need one. It’s costs more. Like a medical issue, you want to address it now rather than waiting until you have to go to the emergency room. It always costs more and is more disruptive than if you are pro-active.
Whether you are thinking about starting a business or already own one, it’s time to establish a relationship with a lawyer.
You don’t necessarily have to hire them now, but you should know one or two lawyers that you want to work with. Interview lawyers now so that you aren't scrambling to find one when you're in a pinch.
2. FINDING THE RIGHT LAWYER:
You understand you need a lawyer, so how do you find one that works for you?
If you don’t know any attorneys that fit the bill, ask around. Perhaps you know lawyers who specialize in other arenas. Ask them for referral. (A word of caution: just because one lawyer refers another lawyer doesn’t necessarily mean they’re a good lawyer. Always do your homework.)
You could also connect with other business owners in your community and get recommendations from them. Or even ask the state bar association and see if they have a directory of lawyers. (Now here again exercise caution. It can be a pay-to-play situation so that only lawyers who will pay the fee are listed. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are a qualified lawyer or endorsed by the bar association.)
At the end of the day, you are the boss. Do some interviewing. Ask about experience, types of matters the lawyer typically deals with, how they charge, etc. Make sure you feel comfortable in the fact that you can build a trust relationship.
If the lawyer talks down to you or makes you feel uncomfortable asking the question, they probably aren’t the right person for you. If they are happy to answer your questions and can explain so that you understand, maybe that’s a lawyer you should consider working with.
3. PREPARING FOR A MEETING WITH YOUR LAWYER.
There are two basic steps that you can take to make your time with your lawyer more efficient and save you money, regardless of the type of lawyer or issue.
The first step is to be clear. Why are you seeing the lawyer? What is it you want out of the appointment? Is it general information or a specific issue? Make a list or outline. Spend a little time thinking it through before the meeting. The more clear you are, the more effectively you can use your lawyer’s time.
The second step you can take is to be organized. The more information you can provide in an organized fashion, the more time you save. Because lawyers typically bill by the hour, saving time is saving money.
Having clarity and being organized also makes it easier for your lawyer to provide you with the best advice for your business in that situation.
4. PRICING IT OUT.
One of the biggest reasons smart, hard-working business owners do not seek legal counsel is cost. Is it the actual cost? No, it's the fear of the actual cost.
When business owners would tell me they don’t use a lawyer because of the cost, I would reply, “Interesting. How much does it cost to hire a lawyer?” Invariably the response was, “Oh, I don’t know. They are just expensive.” Really? Is that how to make a solid business decision? On an assumption, rather than facts?
Sometimes it does cost a lot to hire a lawyer, but not always.
There is no one answer to how much it costs to hire a lawyer. Same goes when buying a car, a house, or a loaf of bread at the grocery store. The answer is, “It depends.” Are you buying a BMW or a Smart Car? Does the house have a swimming pool? Are you buying white bread or artisan crafted stone ground?
The same is true with hiring a lawyer. Do you need one for general business advice? To help you start your business? To draft an employment agreement? Your specific needs will dictate cost, so asking questions up front is always advised. The previous suggestions provided tools that you can use to make sure you can communicate with your lawyer and talk about fees.
Lawyers charge in a variety of ways, just like any other service profession. Some charge by the hour, some charge a flat fee. The point is to make sure you understand how you are being charged when you hire that lawyer and that you can clearly communicate with your lawyer about any misunderstandings about charges.
5. ENDING A LEGAL RELATIONSHIP
While it's certainly better to not be in a position where you need to terminate the relationship with your attorney, sometimes (in spite of your best efforts) things go south.
Red flags to be on the lookout for: not returning your phone calls, not responding to emails, not delivering the service promised, continuous unexplained delays, charging way more than quoted fees without communicating with you, and not answering your questions about these things in a straightforward manner.
If you are having issues with your lawyer, make sure you ask questions first and try to resolve them. If things still don’t seem right, or you've been given the runaround about your concerns, find another lawyer that you want to work with first. Once you've secured someone new, have your existing lawyer transfer your files to the new lawyer. You can make that request in-person, via phone-call or email, whatever is most comfortable for you. But do it respectfully, as you would in all of your business dealings.
I hope you find a wonderful lawyer that you like working with and don’t end up in this situation, but if you do, don’t hesitate. It’s not fun, but it needs to be done.
At the end of the day, you are in charge. It’s your business. It’s your baby. You need to #CoverYourAssets, so take the step if you have to.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Susan Burns is a small business strategist and lawyer with over 30 years of experience. Her favorite part of the last 30 years is the people. Her firm, Susan Burns LLC, works with entrepreneurs who are in growth mode.
Susan is also the founder and CEO of Small Business Legal School, teaching entrepreneurs the skills they need to effectively navigate legal waters. She believes that a business worth building is worth protecting, and encourages business owners to make legal their silent business partner. Sign up for a free mini-course at smallbusinesslegalschool.com