Here are a few simple suggestions of what to consider when selecting a corporate attorney.
Good attorneys are responsive to their client’s needs. If you are seeking to hire a lawyer and he has trouble finding a time to meet with you or to discuss your business, chances are that you are witnessing the beginning of a pattern that will bother you throughout the relationship. First impressions are important, and if the prospective attorney does not show enthusiasm about working with you, go find someone who does.
Select a business advisor, not just a legal whiz.
The lawyer you select should have top-notch legal skills and be fully capable of handling any corporate legal problem your company is likely to face. But the best corporate lawyers combine pragmatic business advice with their legal analysis. A good way to check a lawyer’s business instincts is to pose a “legal” question and see if he offers a “business” solution. If you are left with more questions and uncertainty than you started with, chances are you need to keep looking.
What you see should be what you get.
Sometimes the lawyer you meet is not the one who will do the work. Be careful of the bait-and-switch. Some firms have marketing teams that are skilled at selling the firm, but are nowhere to be found when the work needs to be done. Instead you are told to work with “Jack,” and it quickly becomes apparent to you why Jack was not showcased at your initial meeting. Demand to know who will do the work, and select the lawyer and law firm based on your evaluation of the lawyers who will be there in the trenches with you and your team.
Ask about fees.
You wouldn’t ask someone to paint your house without finding out first what the painter will charge. It is simply good business to ask a prospective lawyer about fees. And a good lawyer should welcome the question and be prepared to discuss it. After all, the client that does not care about legal fees is often the client that ends up not paying them. Prospective clients frequently know to ask for the hourly rate the lawyer will charge, but savvy clients take it a step further and ask for estimates of what a project will cost, recognizing that most corporate lawyers’ fees are the product of an hourly rate times the hours spent on the project.
Yes, I know that only a dummy would hand out bad references. But it is reassuring nonetheless to speak to someone who has had a positive experience with the corporate attorney you are about to select. Ask probing questions of the references and find out the attorney’s strengths and weaknesses. You may be surprised at how much you can learn about your prospective attorney from a five-minute conversation with a reference.
Require industry knowledge.
A corporate lawyer will serve you better and less expensively if he knows something about your company’s industry. Every industry has its own patterns, quirks and rules of thumb, and you don’t want your lawyer having to learn them on your nickel (or worse yet, miss them entirely). Ask questions to probe his understanding of common industry practices. Have him describe recent work done for companies in your industry. And while doing so, avoid the trap that some clients encounter, which is to define the industry so narrowly that the only lawyer satisfactory to them is the one who happens to represent their chief competitor.
Consider the resources of the firm you are selecting.
One-stop shopping has its advantages. Most clients have legal needs that go beyond just corporate work. When selecting a business lawyer, consider what else his firm offers. If, for example, you are contemplating filing patents or need immigration advice, you may want to choose a corporate lawyer whose firm can handle those matters. A good corporate lawyer should serve as a point person for all of your legal needs by introducing you to the right people at his firm.
Find someone you like.
Finally, select a corporate lawyer whose personality meshes with your own. You will need to work hand-in-hand with your attorney on all of your company’s important milestones, from obtaining financing, securing a key customer contract r selling the business. These are stressful situations in the best of circumstances, so why not make them easier by finding a lawyer who can share a laugh with you, if not a beer when the deal is done.
[SCORE Note: All SCORE clients are advised to seek professional advice from a licensed attorney. Seacoast Chapter 185 provides a registry of Local Resources which contains information on lawyers, and other useful business resources.]
Mass High Tech, April 25, 2005
By William R. Kolb