Unless you run a law office, you probably do not have the resources to hire in-house representation or even put a business attorney on retainer. But this doesn’t mean that you won’t need legal support on a somewhat regular basis to review contracts, help settle disputes, protect your intellectual property (trademarks and patents) and more. Good legal advice can protect you from making costly errors.
While you can certainly find plenty of business lawyers in your area through websites like Lawyers.com, Nolo, FindLaw and even your local Bar Association, how do you know which one is right for your business? With countless lawyers available, you need to understand the criteria that can help you choose.
The Right Lawyer is a Very Personal Choice
Just as you would do when choosing a doctor, you need to get the best deal for your money, the right expertise and a good personal relationship. You probably don’t need a lawyer who doubles as your best friend, but look into the following factors to find a good fit.
General vs. Niche Support
In a perfect world, one law firm will have the skills and legal knowledge to help with any legal issue. General practice law firms promise this type of full service; niche practice law firms claim that by focusing on a narrow range of specialties, they know more and represent you better.
Neither is necessarily wrong or right., and you’ll probably need a bit of both. So, while a general business law firm might be perfect for drafting or reviewing contracts and handling common legal issues, you might prefer a niche attorney to guide you through specialized concerns, like intellectual property protection or local zoning issues.
Experience with Similar Business Clients
Highly-specialized industries require a law firm that understands many unique issues in order to represent you properly. For example, if your company works with toxic chemicals, you want an attorney with experience handling everything from safety and liability to zoning in your local area. A firm that represents other companies in your industry probably has the specialized knowledge needed to handle your potential issues. It’s even better if you can call some of their clients for references.
Don’t forget that members of your own professional network are great sources of recommendations. Talk about your legal needs over drinks at a monthly chapter meeting, and you’re bound to get a few recommendations (and some warnings) based on real experiences.
Short of online legal services, you have to expect that legal fees can potentially break your small business budget. You definitely need the ability to determine affordability before you hire. If they have to quote for each seemingly basic task, you’ll never know how to budget for legal fees.
If you know a firm’s hourly rate and can predict your needs over the long term, budgeting will be easier. Also find out if the firm expects an up-front payment — and whether a meter starts ticking each time they answer your phone call.
Don’t be afraid to negotiate. With nearly 1.4 million attorneys across the U.S. you can certainly find a few good ones who will work with you on price.
Degree of Personal Service
Do you get to talk to your lawyer when you have questions, or does a paralegal or administrative assistant intervene? You might get fine support from others on the lawyer’s team, but hourly fees should be significantly lower than you would pay for direct attorney support.
Also, try to get a firm that promises reasonable call-back times — unless you’re comfortable sitting around for days waiting to find out how to handle an urgent issue without going to jail.
Many lawyers only speak Legalese, but do you understand what they’re saying? Just as important, do they understand what you’re saying when you don’t speak Legalese? You cannot make important decisions when communication on either side is muddled.
Your ability to communicate should become apparent during the initial interview (which should be free). If they misinterpret your questions or you need a dictionary to understand their answers, then talk to someone else.
When you need face-to-face contact, don’t expect your business attorney to come to you very often. So, find out how easy it is to get to the lawyer’s office (and whether free parking is available nearby).
Of course, in-person contact is not necessary much of the time, so learn about other options. Do they offer online meetings (or even good phone communication) to minimize the amount of time that you need to spend together? Why spend time in rush hour traffic unnecessarily?
You Can be Your Own Lawyer… Sometimes
There are times when an online do-it-yourself approach to the law can make sense while saving you significant money. One example might be using these services as a source for standard contract language and instructions. Some business owners have had success doing business formations online; others would warn that working with a lawyer can save major future grief by preventing you from making unfavorable choices.
When it comes to do-it-yourself law, it’s generally preferable to err on the side of caution. But, many online firms also offer advice and support from real lawyers at low-low prices. If you don’t need a personal relationship with a specific lawyer, this type of service can be a great alternative. You can always retain a dedicated lawyer when you need personalized support.
The Right Legal Support Keeps Your Business on Track Even Before Opening Day
Like it or not, legal advice is important, even if your business is still in its planning stage. The law has a sneaky way of involving itself into virtually everything you do, and seemingly small mistakes now can pack a whollop in your operations when you least expect it.
So, take the time to investigate your legal options now. When you need advice or support in the future, you will be glad to be prepared.