How to Choose and Work with an Attorney

Adapted from content excerpted from the American Express® OPEN Small Business Network

While you may not need legal advice on a regular basis, it probably pays for you to have an attorney for your company on call. That way, when you need legal advice and assistance, you’ll be working with someone whom you’re comfortable, and who understands the needs of your business.

When will you need legal counsel? Here are some typical situations:

  • When you’re deciding whether to incorporate – and need to file the appropriate paperwork
  • When you’re trying to write or decipher a complicated contract
  • When you’re threatened with a lawsuit
  • When you need help collecting a debt
  • When you need information on regulations pertaining to your business, and assistance in how to comply with them

Hire an attorney who understands your business

Make sure that your attorney (and any other professional advisor) understands the specific needs of your business. When interviewing to select a lawyer, ask whether he/she has previously worked with a company such as yours – you don’t want to have to pay for learning time. Has the firm worked with small businesses before? What kind? And if your industry has specialized regulatory or other legal requirements, you’ll want a lawyer who is familiar with them.

Use referrals

Referrals are the best way to find just about any service you might need, and finding an attorney is no exception. Talk to other small business owners, and to your banker, accountant, or other trusted advisor. You can also check with your local bar association, although not all of them verify an attorney’s specialty or experience. A bar association referral will, of course, guarantee that an attorney has passed the bar exam.

Understand your charges before you get a bill

An attorney’s fees will vary depending on the location of the practice, the experience of the attorney, the specialty, and whether you’re dealing with a large firm or a small legal office.

Be aware of how the attorney charges. When you call for assistance, are you being charged for the time on the phone? If so, how are these charges calculated? Are there different rates depending on who works on your account – a lawyer, a researcher, a paralegal?

Also, ask in advance whether there will be a charge for the initial consultation.

Negotiate a billing method that suits your needs

Most small business people pay attorneys when they need them – if an attorney does two hours of work, you pay for that time. If you have an ongoing relationship with your attorney, you will probably be billed once a month for services rendered.

Another option is to have an attorney on retainer, but that is rare for small businesses. Retainer means that you pay a fee to an attorney to be available to do an agreed-upon amount of duties for your company on an ongoing basis. If you head into heavy litigation, or a special project, additional fees are negotiated.

It is sometimes possible to obtain a prepaid legal plan where you get a variety of services for a flat annual fee.

There are a number of ways you can save money on your legal bills. Here are some suggestions:

Be organized for all meetings with your lawyer, because the clock is ticking. Make non-legal phone calls yourself. Do basic research yourself. Prepare a contract and show it to your attorney rather than asking him/her to prepare it.

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