Whatever your status as a business owner – prospective, new or established – you’re better off having a relationship with a business lawyer. That’s not to say you necessarily need one on retainer, but it’s smart to have someone available for you if something comes up. And something is bound to come up at some point, be it an employment issue, a contract, a lease or another facet of operating a business.
If you don’t already have a business lawyer you trust, finding one is much like finding a doctor. It starts with asking friends, family and others who may have worked with lawyers in the past, and it justifies interviewing prospects to make a final choice.
Other business owners, along with accountants, financial planners and bankers are good places to start. But don’t settle for just one name; get at least two or three. You’ll be putting a lot of trust in that attorney and his or her abilities, and it’s important to find someone who’s a good fit for you.
Once you have names of attorneys, it’s time to meet them. Most attorneys are accustomed to being interviewed by potential clients. During the interview, be sure to inquire about the following:
Qualifications – The qualifications you’ll be looking for depend on the needs you expect to have. If you’re just starting out, you’ll want someone who works with a wide variety of business entities (e.g., LLC, S Corp, etc.) so he or she can help you decide what structure is best for you. If you’re already in business and you have a case that’s arisen, a delinquent account, for example, you’ll want someone who practices with other attorneys who do litigation. Most business lawyers are not litigators.
Fees – Ask how the lawyer charges. More and more, lawyers are offering flat rates for certain projects, making it easier for business owners to budget. Ask how they bill for telephone calls and emails. Is it on an hourly rate? Also ask how often they bill. It’s important to note that in Wisconsin, any matters with legal fees exceeding $1,000 require a legal services agreement.
Accessibility – Most lawyers have policies about requests during non-business hours. If that matters to you, be sure to ask about. Also ask how accessible the lawyer will be to you during regular business hours.
While it’s recommended you ask about the types of businesses a lawyer works with, don’t ask for references. Legal work often is highly confidential, and ethical lawyers won’t disclose a client’s identity without prior permission.
Many business owners find it’s helpful to bring a real or hypothetical legal question to the interviews. If you ask each lawyer you interview the same question, you can compare how their advice may differ and better gauge whose advice fits best with your personal philosophies and values. You can also compare whose approach seems most practical.
When choosing a business lawyer, you not only need someone well informed on the law, you need someone you can trust. You need someone who will listen and talk through issues with you so you can arrive at a solution that works.