Google “lawyer jokes” and you’ll get 869,000 hits. Most of them are mean, calling attorneys “sharks” or “vultures” with few scruples or regrets. In other words, they pretty much reflect our own mixed feelings about lawyers.
“Lawyers definitely have a bad reputation with business owners,” says Cynthia Umphrey, a director of Troy, Mich.-based Kemp Klein, a law firm specializing in small businesses. Umphrey also chairs the Michigan Bar Association’s Small Business Forum.
“That’s because many business owners see lawyers only when they have a problem. Even if we fix it, you’re not going to like the bill,” she continues. “But people who use lawyers to prevent problems – to review contracts or make collections easier – feel a lot better about their attorneys.”
WHEN TO TALK
There are many times when talking to a lawyer might prevent bigger problems later. Among the key pressure points:
Acquisitions/sales. A good business lawyer can structure a deal so acquisitions cost less and asset sales earn more. One of Umphrey’s clients was offered $14 million for his business. When she analyzed the tax consequences, he realized he wouldn’t have gotten anywhere near that amount.
Employees. Federal and state governments have lots of employee regulations. Lawyers can help formulate guidelines that keep you out of trouble with hiring, firing, safety, and sexual harassment.
Money. Banks (and non-bank lenders) want to saddle loans with lots of conditions. Lawyers will try to cap personal guarantees and exclude certain assets like a home or a spouse’s property. Attorneys can also help with collections.
Contracts. Lawyers can help strengthen your standard contract. They should also review critical contracts for delivery, service, warranty, and other terms.
HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT LAWYER
So how do you find the right lawyer for your business?
Pick a specialist. “If your lawyer is doing everything from DWI to divorce to business acquisitions, either he’s a genius or taking on too much,” says Umphrey. “Generalists tend to fall apart on day-to-day business law troubleshooting. A good business lawyer can answer most of your questions and knows when to call for expert help.” When looking for a lawyer, ask how much time they spend on business work daily, what types of business work they do, where they feel comfortable representing you, and why.
Find someone practical. Since you don’t have an unlimited budget, you need a lawyer who knows how to focus on what’s important. Umphrey recalls a client who wanted to sue his former partners: “We asked him if it was really worth $50,000 in legal fees to go after $75,000 with no guarantee of winning.”
Find someone who talks sense. Find someone who explains complex legal issues clearly so you understand your choices. And watch out for answers that are too simplistic. For example, a lawyer who gives advice about firing an employee without asking about age, gender, race, and disabilities may not understand protected employment classes, warns Umphrey.
Find someone who wants you. Your attorney should want your business. Have a sit-down and make sure you feel comfortable with one another. Ask if he or she works with businesses your size. Ask how fast the lawyer will return your phone calls. Make sure you walk away feeling positive about the relationship.
Ask about fees. Legal advice is not cheap. Attorneys usually charge hourly rates or flat fees for most services and contingency fees on lawsuits where they recover money. Sometimes, these fees are negotiable. Remember – low hourly rates do not always result in low costs. Try to get a feel how long a typical job, such as a contract review, might take.
Written by Alan S. Brown [email protected] and reprinted with permission from “The Edge” (10-15-07) newsletter.