Finding a Business Attorney—Family and Friends
Family and friends are a good place to start when looking for a referral for a good attorney. Your family and friends are often invaluable when providing referrals to you on all sorts of things in life, so why not also consult them when you are considering hiring a lawyer? However, be aware that if your family and friends have not dealt with a lot of business legal matters in their own life, their experiences with attorneys may be limited to estate planning, personal injury or family law. Therefore, you might need to branch out beyond family and friends to find a good referral for a business attorney who is experienced in the areas you need help with as an entrepreneur.
Finding a Business Attorney—Other Entrepreneurs, LinkedIn, the Web
A great source for finding information on a good business law attorney is other entrepreneurs. Consider talking to other successful business owners or startup entrepreneurs like yourself to find out who they worked with in the past. Talk to people who are involved in trade organizations with you or local business clubs and your chamber of commerce. In addition, LinkedIn can be a great resource for finding information relevant to your business. Consider joining several LinkedIn Groups that are related to your business specialty or product and post a question in the member forum asking for names of good business attorneys who have experience in your business area. In addition, looking around on the web for lawyers who have written on the topic in question can be a useful way of finding an attorney who practices in your specific area of need. Websites like Avvo can be helpful, as they provide background information on attorneys and may also include helpful guides such as this one. In fact, I originally wrote this piece as a guide on Avvo, which you can view under my profile here.
Who to Hire? Understanding the Way Attorneys Think
Once you assemble a list of possible attorneys, consider your own personality and think about what type of attorney you will feel most comfortable working with. Many entrepreneurs are frustrated when they first begin working with an attorney, because the attorney often strikes them as pessimistic or too much of a worrier. Attorneys are taught in law school to "spot issues" so when you run an idea by them, they may come across as negative, because in the attorney's mind they are thinking of all the potential "issues" that could arise from a certain course of action. However, this does not mean the attorney is saying your idea is bad or wrong, merely that there are issues to consider before going forward. Often an entrepreneur can interpret this "issue spotting" as "putting up roadblocks to my good ideas." From there the relationship between client and attorney can break down because the client thinks the attorney is just shooting down their good ideas, while the attorney feels they are performing a valuable service by protecting the client from the unknown potential consequences of their decisions. To some extent, this tension is inherent in the relationship because entrepreneurs tend to be risk takers, whereas attorneys tend to be risk averse.
It is important for both the client and the attorney to recognize this difference between the way most attorneys think and the way most entrepreneurs think from the outset. With this knowledge out in the open from the beginning, both attorney and entrepreneur can keep this information regarding their counterpart in mind as they work together. To help minimize this situation, look for an attorney who has worked with entrepreneurs in the past, as they are more likely to be comfortable in this type of situation and more skilled at communicating liability concerns without coming across as overly negative. In my own practice, I try to remember that "without risk, there is no reward" so for any entrepreneur they must be willing to assume some risk. An attorney who works with business owners will therefore not be able to limit all risks, but should seek to advice and counsel as to the best way to accomplish the entrepreneur’s goals while also minimizing the inherent risks.
Who to Hire? Flat Fees, Hourly Billing, and Alternative Fee Arrangements
Finally, when looking for a good business attorney to work with, consider your goals for your business and your short-term and long-term needs. Are you looking for an attorney to help you with a specific one-time project, such as filing a patent or trademark application? Or, are you looking for an attorney to give your business ongoing advice and counsel regarding human resources, tax issues, employment agreements and a multitude of other areas. Depending on your answer, you may want to look for an attorney who offers billing methods suitable for your situation.
Many entrepreneurs, especially when they are just starting out, prefer flat rates for services they view as a one-time service, such as the aforementioned patent application. A flat rate is a one-time fee the attorney charges based on the estimated time he thinks he will spend working on your project. If the attorney spends more than the estimated time on your project, you pay no more than the quoted fee. However, for an attorney you plan to work with on a continual basis, hourly billing is likely to be the standard method offered by the attorney. An attorney who offers hourly billing should be able to give you an estimate of the costs of a project before you begin. This will often be a range, such as saying it should cost between $1200-1600 to complete the requested project. You may be able to modify this by talking with the attorney to see what alternative billing arrangements he may offer. For instance, perhaps you might agree to pay the attorney monthly for ongoing legal business advice, and he agrees to provide you with so many hours per month in exchange. This gives both you and the attorney a predictable monthly bill (for you) and predictable monthly work and income (for the attorney) and can benefit both sides. This is only one example of the way alternative billing arrangements can work to benefit both the client and the attorney. Consider your goals and ask questions regarding billing arrangements when you interview several attorneys prior to hiring them. Then consider their answers and decide who offers the best options for your specific situation.
I hope this guide has presented some helpful information to you regarding things to consider when hiring your first business attorney. Good luck with your search and with your business!