Five Things You Need in a Business Attorney
One of the most common and most painful mistakes that business owners make is waiting to engage an attorney until they need one. By the time you need an attorney, it’s often too late! Imagine waiting to use your seatbelt until you “needed it.”
Why do so many business owners wait until it’s too late? My guess is that they simply don’t know how to track down a good business lawyer, or, more likely, they’ve had a bad experience with an attorney in the past.
Unfortunately, clients often find that their lawyer never returns phone calls, has difficulty meeting deadlines, doesn’t listen to what she wants, ruins business relationships, sends surprise (usually large) bills, or doesn’t have a clue about the real world of business!
The best-case scenario for a business owner is a legal advisor with real-world business experience, who can learn about and understand your business, who is concerned about your business, and who will give you practical advice to help you accomplish your business objectives.
With the invention of Google, actually finding the names of lawyers (or anything, for that matter) is easier than ever. But industrious and discerning business professionals want an equally discerning lawyer, who will benefit their business and solve problems rather than create them. This article will show you how to tell if a lawyer measures up.
What Do I Want in a Business Lawyer?
A client’s wants and needs run the gamut of possibilities based on their particular situations, but I’ve found that nearly all clients want 5 things from their business attorney:
- Concern, care, and a sense of urgency,
- Regular and responsive communication,
- Up front discussion of fees and costs,
- Description of the process and the attorney-client relationship, and
- Business expertise.
Here’s what those things mean and how you can tell if your lawyer will provide them.
Concern, Care, Sense of Urgency
First, providing concern and care means that the attorney takes the time to listen to the client to truly understand her legal situation. The attorney must actively listen to all of the facts and circumstances and ask clients about their goals before making a recommendation (or taking action).
It also means recognizing that the client’s time is as valuable as his. He should appreciate the client’s sense of urgency and set a time frame for the work.
An experienced business lawyer also understands that client relationships with business partners (co-owners) or employees will continue long after a deal is negotiated and the legal work is done. Preserving those relationship means maintaining a respectful demeanor, understanding the other side’s concerns, supporting negotiating points and proposals with valid business and legal purposes while simultaneously negotiating hard for your interests.
Unfortunately, this can be difficult for some attorneys. Many (often those attorneys who litigate) approach these situations as zero-sum games, which usually leaves relationships permanently broken.
Communication Is Key
Communication is key to a good attorney-client relationship. One of the biggest complaints clients have about their attorneys is that they don’t return phone calls or emails. A member of the law firm should return your call or respond to an email within one business day to keep you informed on your matter.
A little-discussed aspect of communication is the feeling that a client gets from the attorney. To get the best legal help possible, a client must feel comfortable discussing anything and everything with his lawyer. Leaving out information can be disastrous because you don’t know what information would change the lawyer’s advice.
Upfront Discussion of Costs
Fees and costs are usually a big complaint from clients. Let me rephrase: unexpected fees and costs are a big complaint. The problem is that often lawyers don’t provide their clients with a way to anticipate the total cost of their services. With hourly billing, clients often feel that they have given their lawyer carte blanche.
The attorney must actively discuss fees and costs up front, give you a good estimate of the total cost, and offer alternative billing arrangements such as fixed fees. This is really part of good communication.
Description of the Process and Procedures
The attorney should take time to walk you through the process of working with him on your matter. He should map out the entire process in broad strokes from that initial meeting to the closing of your case. Once you and the attorney decide on a course of action, he should identify exactly what his role and responsibilities will be and what will be expected of you. He should explain important issues and alternatives that may develop, and then set a time line for each of these stages.
Finally, business expertise means that the attorney has a practice that is focused only on business matters, and that he has real-life, non-lawyer business experience. This means you get effective, business-oriented legal advice and don’t pay to train the attorney on business matters.
Unfortunately, many attorneys have multiple practice areas and can only give a text-book answer to business law questions. Assuming that it takes around 10,000 hours of concentrated practice to become an expert in something (as was popularized by Malcolm Gladwell in his 2008 book Outliers), if an attorney has four distinct practice areas, the likelihood that she is an expert in any one of them is low. She may appear in criminal court in the morning and negotiate a business deal in the afternoon. And, she’s never actually been involved in the business world.
How Do I Sort the Wheat from the Chaff?
You might be wondering where you start? How exactly do you go about sifting through a list of possible attorneys without scheduling a bunch of initial consultations and paying a thousands of dollars?
Website and Website Content
A great way to find out more about a lawyer is to look at their firm’s website. At first, just take in the overall design of it. Does it look like it was built in the early 90s? If their website hasn’t been updated since Windows 95, are they going to be able to offer you the best and most up-to-date advice on the rapidly changing business world?
Next, what’s the purpose of the website? Ultimately, an attorney should be willing to educate his clients about their matters. And you can often get a good sense of whether he is capable and willing to do this by looking at the website. Does it feel like the website’s only goal is to tout the accomplishments of the attorney and give him a place to brag about himself? Or is the website built for you, the client?
Read through the educational content posted to the firm’s website. You should want to work with a lawyer who presents information to you freely and openly, who welcomes the opportunity to educate clients and potential clients on a wide range of business-related legal issues. If the attorney is tight-lipped on the website and is only concerned about flaunting her law degree and other accolades, it may portend a similar disinterest in educating you on your matter when you are a client.
Reviews and Testimonials
Social proof is highly potent. Again, the internet has increased the access to and prevalence of reviews for businesses and services. Most consumers will check online reviews for a business, even if they have been referred by a friend. As President Reagan was fond of saying, “Trust, but verify.”
You should check the reviews and testimonials for your business lawyer. A perfect rating isn’t a necessity—who among us is perfect?—but a terrible rating should raise your Spidey senses! Use reviews judiciously, of course, but checking what a lawyer says about themselves and their firm against what their clients say is always a good idea.
How Can We Help You?
When you are searching for a business lawyer, we sincerely hope that you will consider us here at Alexander|Abramson PLLC. We take pride in educating potential clients and in offering informational content on business-relate issues that can help business owners improve their businesses.
We focus exclusively on business-related legal matters. Our attorneys have advised closely held businesses and business professionals for decades on everything from partnership arrangements and business contract matters, to buying or selling a business, to raising equity capital.
Our staff strives to create a high-quality client experience by actively listening and maintaining open lines of communication, consistently meeting deadlines, and being upfront about our pricing and services. Don’t trust your business to an attorney that can’t or won’t offer you the best service possible.
We would love to speak with you directly about how we can help you start, grow, or sell your business.
Call us 407-649-7777 to set up an initial consultation.