Finding the Right Lawyer for Your Business
Can one attorney handle all your business needs? Maybe, maybe not.
It can be hard finding the right lawyer for your business. From the beginning, most new business owners need legal advice regarding a wide range of matters. These include whether your business should be a sole proprietorship or a corporation and what type of corporation you should form. Partners need a partnership agreement; leases have to be negotiated; and zoning issues may arise.
You also need to consider the types of liability issues inherent in your business. For instance, do you lease or buy vehicles and equipment? If you have employees, you may need legal advice regarding medical insurance, workers’ compensation insurance, liability problems, and labor relations questions. You’ll likely need contracts for your buying and selling arrangements.
Your need for legal counsel may also depend on what type of business you have. For example, if you have a product or a service, you may need a trademark, service mark, or a patent. And what if your business needs to sue or gets sued?
“General Practitioner” Attorneys
There are many attorneys who specialize in representing small businesses and serving all their legal needs. Think of this type of lawyer as a general medical practitioner, who must be a good diagnostician, who treats patients for many conditions, and who will refer the patient (your business) to a specialist when the need arises. An experienced small business lawyer should be able to counsel you on all of the above issues while recognizing when to refer you to a specialist because the matter has become too complex or beyond his or her general knowledge. For example, many small business attorneys will refer out if your business is applying for a patent, dealing with IRS disputes, or facing an employee discrimination suit. Difficult issues like those are best handled by legal specialists.
How Do You Find A Good Business Attorney?
There are several ways to locate an attorney experienced in advising business owners. Usually, the best way is a referral from someone you know who also owns a small business. Satisfied clients are still an attorney’s preferred source of new clients. If you know a lawyer with a different specialty, such as probate or family law, a few friendly questions can put you on the right track. You might also check with family members or friends. Ask other business professionals you know or use who come into frequent contact with lawyers, such as your accountant, banker, real estate broker, or insurance agent.
If you still need help, you can look to trade groups or industry associations. Contact the local bar association in your area. The American Bar Association has tools and information to help business owners find attorneys. The Internet’s full of listings of attorneys. At Lawyers.com a few clicks gets you a list of business law attorneys in your area, complete with telephone numbers, background information and more. But be aware that these last sources do little or no screening of attorneys’ experience or qualifications. If you resort to finding an attorney in one of these ways, be sure to screen them thoroughly. Ask for and follow up on referrals from the attorney’s small business clients. Check with the State Bar Association and the Better Business Bureau for complaints.
Choose From Several And Do Your Homework
Don’t stop looking when you think you’ve found one attorney who may be a good match for your needs. Collect information about 3-4 potential candidates. Find out everything you can about them:
- If you use Lawyers.com, you already have a lot information at your fingertips. Visit the attorneys’ own websites to learn more.
- Look for a list of representative clients. Are they the types of clients that you’d want your lawyer representing? Does the attorney represent businesses similar to yours? Does the attorney represent any of your competitors, or someone you may have to sue?
- Run Internet searches on the attorneys’ names. You may find news articles about them, legal cases they’ve handled, or legal articles or blogs they’ve written. This type of information can tell you a lot about the attorneys’ experiences and reputations.
- Make phone calls if you can’t find enough information online. Most attorneys gladly take the time to talk to potential new clients and answer general questions, like how long they’ve practiced law, how much business-related legal work they do, etc. Ask if the attorneys or law firms have a brochure or literature that can be mailed to you.
- Ask for references. You want to talk to people who can give an opinion on the lawyer’s skills and trustworthiness.
Interview Several Candidates In Person
Then meet with each of the attorneys and ask questions. An experienced attorney will expect a serious prospective client to do just that. Try to judge each candidate’s experience, knowledge, personal rapport, accessibility, and eagerness to take you on as a new client. Ask all candidates the same questions and take notes so you can compare their answers later.
Considerations When You Interview
Take your business plan to the interview so you can discuss all pertinent details of your present and future operations. A lawyer may not have extensive experience in your particular industry, but he or she should have experience in closely related fields that have legal needs similar to yours. During the interview or meeting probe for information that will help you answer these questions on your own after all the interviews are complete:
“Can I afford this attorney?”
Ask about hourly fees or fixed fees for specific projects. Note: don’t strike an attorney off your list based on hourly rate alone. An experienced lawyer may be able to accomplish in several hours what could take an inexperienced lawyer a full day or more. This could save you money.
“Is he or she willing to work with a company of my size?”
Be direct: ask if small projects that may not take much time will receive the same prompt attention as issues of larger companies. This is one of the most important aspects of finding a good fit.
“Can this attorney explain legal issues in simple terms?”
You’ll need to understand what your attorney is doing. Good attorneys can make even complex legal issues understandable.
“Do I feel like I can comfortably work with this attorney?”
Your business attorney doesn’t have to become a friend but you do want to hire one that you get along with. Your goal may well be finding a business attorney is who will be with you for the long-term and help your company grow to the next level and beyond. The more harmonious you are with your attorney, the more pleasant and perhaps more effective each of your meetings will be.
“Is the attorney responsive?”
How quickly does the attorney return your calls, texts, and e-mails? This is big. When you have something important and timely, you’ll be frustrated if your attorney doesn’t respond to your messages for days at a time. If the attorney isn’t quick to return your calls before you hire him or her, don’t expect things to change if you do hire that attorney. Try to get a commitment to responding to you in a certain amount of time that’s comfortable for both of you.
Remember, the attorney you hire works for you and it’s vital that you select someone you trust, you can communicate with, and who will treat you fairly. Other tips include:
Check with your state’s bar association and your local bar association to see if the attorneys on your list have ever been disciplined and if they’re licensed to practice law in your state. If you discover a problem, scratch the names from your list, or feel free to ask the attorneys themselves about it if and when you meet with them.
In some states, attorneys may be certified by the state bar association as specialists or experts in business law. This usually means they have advanced training and experience. It doesn’t necessarily mean they’re the best in the field, but it’s a good indication a lawyer knows the business world.
Consider any special needs you have. For example, could you benefit from an attorney who speaks a language other than English?
The legal field can be highly complex and varied, and not all attorneys are experienced in the myriad of issues affecting small businesses. When selecting an attorney to handle your company’s legal affairs, take the time to find 3-4 good potential candidates, check their qualifications and references, and meet with them in person.