Selecting an attorney for your small business is one of the most important decisions that you will make in your entrepreneurial life. Attorneys are often hired as a quick-fix or to unravel a deal gone bad. However, hiring an attorney is a long-term relationship, not a summer fling – choose wisely.
Here are the must-ask questions before you commit to counsel:
Have you worked with other businesses in my industry?
If so, can you provide a list of representative clients? Attorneys are not just paid to draft contracts, but for the specialized knowledge they bring to the table. You will get the most value by working with someone who understands the nuances of your industry, not a one-size-fits-all small business attorney.
What is your client communication policy?
One of the biggest problems that I’ve seen in attorney-client relationships involves expectations around when and how communication should occur. Some attorneys communicate only when there is a major update, while others engage with clients on a regular basis. Some attorneys deal mostly in email communications, while others will take phone calls without issue. Some attorneys will bill for those calls, while others may not. You need to make sure that the attorney’s communication style and the law firm’s client culture works for you.
What is your fee structure?
Let’s be honest. The last thing that you want is a legal bill above and beyond your expectations. Clarify whether the attorney uses hourly billing, flat fee or an alternative method. For hourly billing, you want to know if the attorney can provide an estimate on the hours required for your matter. If you need a lot of work, then ask the attorney if he or she would be willing to cap the fees at a certain dollar amount and work within your budget. Honesty is best, and addressing money matters up front will avoid issues with your attorney on the back end.
What are the possible outcomes and alternatives of my matter?
No attorney can guarantee an outcome on your matter but they should be able to give insight on the Plan A and Plan B. For example, say an attorney is handling your federal trademark registration. Ask them to explain the course of action in the event that your registration is not approved. Clarify, any fees that you may incur for the attorney’s additional work on your file. Simply put, ask the attorney to give you a “worse case scenario budget” so that you can be adequately prepare financially for Plan B.
Will there be limitations on the scope of the representation?
Ideally, you want to avoid attorney-hopping, and work with the same attorney and/or firm as your business grows. Take the time to clarify the five year plan for your business before your consultation. That way, you can briefly share where your business is headed and the attorney can determine situations where their representation may be limited. For example, the attorney may do business entity formations, but not employment law. As you build a team you will need to retain another attorney to counsel on employee matters.
Lastly, have a real conversation with the attorney. Ultimately, you need to make sure that that he or she actually jives with you (and vice versa). Do they take a real interest in your business? For larger companies, this abstract, fit-factor might not matter as much. But for you, the small business owner, whose blood, sweat and tears, have gone into building this dream – it does. You don’t want to be just another notch, file number or accounts receivable. You want an attorney who will take the time to understand the vision for your business and who will wholly support your work as an integral part of the team.
Attorney Patrice N. Perkins is the owner of Lifestyle Zen, a law firm for creative entrepreneurs. Her practice areas include business set-up and maintenance, transactional law and intellectual property. Patrice publishes My Lifestyle Zen, a lifestyle + law blog for creatives, where she offers tips on legally operating a business and insight on work-life balance topics.
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