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Saturday, July 30, 2011

How to hire an attorney

Below is an excerpt from a article that was printed in the Entrepreneur magazine.

How to Hire an Attorney
Hiring a good lawyer is crucial to any successful business. Here's everything you need to know about finding, interviewing and hiring the very best.
There are two professionals every business will need early on: an accountant and a lawyer. The reasons for hiring an accountant are pretty obvious--you need someone to help you set up your "chart of accounts," review your numbers periodically, and prepare all of your necessary federal, state and local tax returns. The reason for hiring a business attorney may not, however, be so apparent. A good business attorney will provide vital assistance in almost every aspect of your business, from basic zoning compliance and copyright and trademark advice to formal business incorporation and lawsuits and liability. First, some general rules about dealing with lawyers:
  • If you are being sued, it's too late. Most small businesses put off hiring a lawyer until the sheriff is standing at the door serving them with a summons. Bad mistake. The time to hook up with a good business lawyer is before you are sued. Once you have been served with a summons and complaint, it's too late--the problem has already occurred, and it's just a question of how much you will have to pay (in court costs, attorneys' fees, settlements and other expenses) to get the problem resolved.
America's judicial system is a lot like a Roach Motel--it's easy to get into court, but very difficult to get out once you've been "trapped." Most lawyers agree that while nobody likes to pay attorneys' fees for anything (heck, let's let our hair down--nobody likes paying or dealing with lawyers, period), but the fee a lawyer will charge to keep you out of trouble is only a small fraction of the fee a lawyer will charge to get you out of trouble once it's happened.
  • Big firm or small firm? Generally speaking, the larger the law firm, the greater the overhead, therefore the higher the hourly rates you will be expected to pay. Still, larger firms have a number of advantages over smaller ones. Over the past 20 years, lawyers have become incredibly specialized. If you use a solo practitioner or small firm as your lawyer(s), it's likely that they will not have all the skills you may need to grow your business. I don't know of any solo practitioner, and very few small firms (under 10 lawyers) that could handle your lawsuits, negotiate your lease of office or retail space, file a patent or trademark, draft a software license agreement, advise you on terminating a disruptive employee, and oversee your corporate annual meeting. Sooner or later, these "generalists" will have to refer you out to specialists, and you will find yourself dealing with two or three (or even more) attorneys.
While larger firms are more expensive to deal with, they have two significant advantages: 1) they usually have all the legal skills you need "under one roof," and 2) they have a lot of clout in the local, regional and (perhaps) national legal community. A nasty letter from a "powerhouse" law firm with offices in 30 states is a lot more intimidating than a nasty letter from a solo practitioner who is not admitted to practice in the defendant's state. Also, being connected with a large, well-established law firm may have intangible benefits--they may be willing to introduce you to financing sources or use their name as a reference when seeking partnership arrangements. Certainly if you run a fast-growing entrepreneurial company that plans to go public (or sell out to a big company) some day, you would need to work with lawyers whose names are recognized in the investment banking and venture capital communities.
Types of Attorneys
Like doctors, lawyers are becoming increasingly specialized. Someone who does mostly wills, house closings and other "non-business" matters is probably not a good fit for your business. At the very least, you will need the following sets of skills. The more skills reside in the same human being, the better!
1. Contracts. You will need a lawyer who can understand your business quickly; prepare the standard form contracts you will need with customers, clients and suppliers; and help you respond to contracts that other people will want you to sign.
2. Business organizations. You will need a lawyer who can help you decide whether a corporation or limited liability company (LLC) is the better way to organize your business, and prepare the necessary paperwork.
3. Real estate. Leases of commercial space--such as offices and retail stores--are highly complex and are always drafted to benefit the landlord. Because they tend to be "printed form" documents, you may be tempted to think they are not negotiable. Not so. Your attorney should have a standard "tenant's addendum," containing provisions that benefit you, that can be added to the printed form lease document.
4. Taxes and licenses. Although your accountant will prepare and file your business tax returns each year, your lawyer should know how to register your business for federal and state tax identification numbers, and understand the tax consequences of the more basic business transactions in which your business will engage.
5. Intellectual property. If you are in a media, design or other creative-type business, it is certainly a "plus" if your lawyer can help you register your products and services for federal trademark and copyright protection. Generally, though, these tasks are performed by specialists who do nothing but "intellectual property" legal work. If your lawyer says he or she "specializes in small businesses," then he or she should have a close working relationship with one or more intellectual property specialist.
Cost-Saving Strategies
For many entrepreneurs, the idea of consulting a lawyer conjures up frightening visions of skyrocketing legal bills. While there's no denying that lawyers are expensive, the good news is there are more ways than ever to keep a lid on costs. Start by learning about the various ways lawyers bill their time:
  • Hourly or per diem rate. Most attorneys bill by the hour. If travel is involved, they may bill by the day.
  • Flat fee. Some attorneys suggest a flat fee for certain routine matters, such as reviewing a contract or closing a loan.
  • Monthly retainer. If you anticipate a lot of routine questions, one option is a monthly fee that entitles you to all the routine legal advice you need.
  • Contingent fee. For lawsuits or other complex matters, lawyers often work on a contingency basis. This means that if they succeed, they receive a percentage of the proceeds--usually between 25 percent and 40 percent. If they fail, they receive only out-of-pocket expenses.
  • Value billing. Some law firms bill at a higher rate on business matters if the attorneys obtain a favorable result, such as negotiating a contract that saves the client thousands of dollars. Try to avoid lawyers who use this method, which is also sometimes called "partial contingency."
If you think one method will work better for you than another, don't hesitate to bring it up with the attorney; many will offer flexible arrangements to meet your needs. When you hire an attorney, draw up an agreement (called an "engagement letter") detailing the billing method. If more than one attorney works on your file, make sure you specify the hourly rate for each individual so you aren't charged $200 an hour for legal work done by an associate who only charges $75. This agreement should also specify what expenses you're expected to reimburse. Some attorneys expect to be reimbursed for meals, secretarial overtime, postage and photocopies, which many people consider the costs of doing business. If an unexpected charge comes up, will your attorney call you for authorization? Agree to reimburse only reasonable and necessary out-of-pocket expenses.
No matter what type of billing method your attorney uses, here are some steps you can take to control legal costs:
  • Have the attorney estimate the cost of each matter in writing, so you can decide whether it's worth pursuing. If the bill comes in over the estimate, ask why. Some attorneys also offer "caps," guaranteeing in writing the maximum cost of a particular service. This helps you budget and gives you more certainty than just getting an estimate.
  • Learn what increments of time the firm uses to calculate its bill. Attorneys keep track of their time in increments as short as six minutes or as long as half an hour. Will a five-minute phone call cost you $50?
  • Request monthly, itemized bills. Some lawyers wait until a bill gets large before sending an invoice. Ask for monthly invoices instead, and review them. The most obvious red flag is excessive fees; this means too many people--or the wrong people--are working on your file. It's also possible you may be mistakenly billed for work done for another client, so review your invoices carefully.
  • See if you can negotiate prompt-payment discounts. Request that your bill be discounted if you pay within 30 days of your invoice date. A 5-percent discount on legal fees can add thousands of dollars to your yearly bottom line.
  • Be prepared. Before you meet with or call your lawyer, have the necessary documents with you and know exactly what you want to discuss. Fax needed documents ahead of time so your attorney doesn't have to read them during the conference and can instead get right down to business. And refrain from calling your attorney 100 times a day.
  • Meet with your lawyer regularly. At first glance, this may not seem like a good way to keep costs down, but you'll be amazed at how much it reduces the endless rounds of phone tag that plague busy entrepreneurs and attorneys. More important, a monthly five- or 10-minute meeting (even by phone) can save you substantial sums by nipping small legal problems in the bud before they have a chance to grow.

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