Most business owners think they can fly under the legal radar of their clients and don’t really need an attorney…until it’s too late. We’re not fans of being fear mongers but we do want to be realistic about giving advice.
The easiest way to find an attorney is to ask a friend or family member. Just remember that simply because your cousin Eddie is a well-accomplished trusts and estate attorney doesn’t mean she necessarily knows about small businesses. You’d rather go with a small business attorney who has prior experience in the field and preserve your relationship with your cousin Eddie.
If you use the Internet to find an attorney, you have a couple of options. You could start with a freelance attorney through websites like oDesk. The trick here is knowing if someone is a good fit, because a flashy profile and a great headshot can be deceptive. Tip: Find an attorney in your state + note their specialization + check out their website (and maybe their LinkedIn profile) + read prior client reviews. If everything on paper looks good, have an initial meeting with the oDesker and see if he or she is a good fit.
A few directory alternatives are sites like Avvo and Lawdingo. You first type in any legal question (like: Do I have a chance at winning the lottery?) and you see if a lawyer from your state has an answer to your question. If you like what the attorney has to say, you can click on the attorney’s profile and see how other lawyers and clients have rated them. If everything adds up, get in touch with the attorney directly.
If you just don’t have the money to work with an attorney, you can always use sample templates to create your own service contracts. We like docracy and US legal forms. Oh, and there is always legal zoom (except when their radio ads come on every five minutes, damn you Ryan Seacrest). Tip: Pre-designed forms are not business specific. Don’t blindly copy and paste the form. You want to tailor it to your business. (Stay tuned for our next post on service contracts to learn more!)
Experience: For example, not many lawyers know what it takes to run a restaurant or ecommerce website. So they’ll have a hard time predicting possible legal issues you might have. If your lawyer is able to give you an example of how they helped a client in the past with their ecommerce website, you get an idea of how experienced the lawyer is in your field.
Understanding Goals: Let’s take the example of a typical design firm with two to five employees and one or two contractors. Their biggest client is Hasbro’s “My Little Pony” division. The design firm’s employees and contractors need to know that the designs they are creating are extremely confidential and that these employees and contractors are prohibited from working with other design firms. You must maintain the integrity of the “My Little Pony” franchise, but at the same time you want to give them unlimited creative freedom. If your lawyer is able to come up with a plan that covers all these bases, you are in good hands.
Team Members: Discuss with your possible attorney, whom do they plan to assign your business to? Will the person you spoke to handle the assignments personally or will a team work on it?
Ideas: Once you have described your business to them, ask them what ideas they may have to keep you protected. You might be a small business owner who rewards risk and likes out of the box thinking, so be sure to communicate that to your attorney.
Time: How long will it take them to complete your initial set of assignments?
Questions: Ask your lawyer if they have any questions for you. The more eager the attorney is to learn about your business, the more engaged he or she will be.
Future: Will you be able to handle future changes (good or bad) to my small business in the event of growth, hiring of new employees, and industry changes? You don’t want to be looking for a new attorney every time something comes up.
Money: How much $$$? What does this cost?
Tip: Ask yourself if you even like the attorney. This could be as simple as you both like cheeseburgers and breakdancing.
Hourly fees are the most common form of payment. Like we previously mentioned, you want to ask for a rough estimate of how much time the lawyer needs for your project so you can determine beforehand whether you need to pawn your vintage baseball cards or not!
Fixed price. For example, a service contract will cost you $400. Shop around and try to balance cost with the attorney you feel the most comfortable with.
Monthly retainer is common for businesses that want the peace of mind that an experienced attorney who knows the ins and outs of their business is taking care of every single legal matter that comes up. It could be anywhere from suing the plumber who promised to fix your toilet but messed up, to filing an important LLC document with the Secretary of State. Either way, you have your attorney on speed dial. By retainer agreements, we mean an agreement where you pay your attorney in advance for work that may come up today or sometime in the future.
Unlicensed/Inactive/Suspended attorney: You can easily verify every attorney’s current license status through Google by typing “attorney search” followed by the state name. Example: Search the Florida Bar attorney directory
Unresponsive attorney: If all you get every time you call your attorney is the sweet secretary’s voice, you might have a problem. As much as you may enjoy chatting it up with the secretary, your attorney is slacking and is ethically obligated to return your phone calls and be in constant communication.
False promises: Make sure everything is in writing. You could record phone calls with your attorney where possible. But you don’t want to be a creep! Let your attorney know if you are recording your conversations, and perhaps using Skype might help you with this. Also, follow up phone calls with emails. If the attorney doesn’t respond with an acknowledgement, this guy may not be the right guy for you.
Poor Work Product: If the service contract you received has a bunch of spelling mistakes and grammatical errors, you have a problem. One way to catch this early on is to request a sample contract to get an idea of how the attorney’s contracts look. If you notice a bunch of typos in the sample, look elsewhere.
Flaking: If the attorney is constantly making excuses, here is your chance to get rid of him. The difficult part is when the attorney has already finished 80% of the work and you have a retainer with him.
Finding the perfect attorney is hard, but make a point to interview a few over the coming weeks. Your attorney’s job is to protect you from legal issues, and if a legal issue does happen that it’s resolved quickly and leaves you unscathed. Hope for the best, but plan for the worst.