In my 27 years of practice as an accountant I have met around 30 or so attorneys. All the interactions were in reference to business issues for my clients. Out of the 30 I have dealt with, I would hire two of them.
So I’m dedicating this article to the small business owner that needs to hire an attorney. What exactly am I looking for in an attorney? Remember, this will be a long term relationship.
There are human characteristics and legal skills you seek. I will address each separately.
As human beings we desire to be around those that are fair, understanding, and share themselves with the community. Look for an attorney that is involved in the community. This is a trait that really bears out the fairness and sharing we all desire in our fellow man. What organizations does he/she belong too? Are they children based, do they support the disabled, or are they religious oriented? Before even meeting with an attorney, look at their website and find out more about the person behind the Juris Doctorate (JD).
If seeking referrals from others, ask them what they know about their attorney, not the legal skills, but his/her background. How long has he lived in the community? Where is he from? What prompted him to live here over some other location? Most likely they won’t know the answer, but every once in a while somebody will know. That person got to know his attorney and his referral is important to you.
Now that you are comfortable with the attorney’s background, it is time to learn about his skill sets. Many attorneys practice several areas of law because of the economic elements in their industry. It is difficult to practice in a single dimension because clients come to them with a multitude of issues. Most folks want the same guy to represent them for their traffic ticket to their divorce. This is where the small businessman goes awry. Find an attorney that practices in the following limited areas:
- Contract Law
- Business Law
- Commercial Real Estate Transactions
- State Corporation Commission Representation
- Franchise Agreements
- Employment Law
All of the above are the core areas of business activity. Note that I didn’t include litigation. One of the two attorneys I met that I thought was great had never stepped foot in court. He didn’t even have a tie!
When it comes time to interview the prospective attorney; look for certain skill sets while you are there. First, is (s)he organized? Clean facilities? Check out the bathroom, is it clean and maintained? These are indicators of how (s)he manages the practice which are key indicators of how (s)he will manage your affairs. If you meet in their office, is it clean? Organized? There should be no stacks of papers etc. (S)He should have a folder with your name on it and some notepaper. They’ll start out wanting to get to know you and then get into the issue at hand. There should be note taking going on. I mean some hard and fast writing. It’s a sign of due diligence in practicing law.
Now when it comes down to the issue at hand, (s)he should be asking a lot of questions. Every case or issue is different. For you, you are interested in finding an attorney to deal with potential problems so you need to ask questions. Here are my suggested questions:
- Why did you choose to become an attorney?
Best answer: Fairness in practicing business – this is important because what he is saying is that you may not be right in your position in an issue and he is going to let you know this. Oftentimes small business entrepreneurs seek out revenge or generating undue hardship on others because of the frustrations they have to endure. Going through hell with customers, employees, or vendors is the normal process of owning a business. He should want you to do the right thing and do what is in the best interest of your business and for you.
2. How do you go about dealing with a client’s issue?
Best answer: Just like a doctor, (s)he would get to know you, understand how you got here, where do you want to go with the business and in life. Then gain an understanding of the issue at hand including the background circumstances, what is the end goal, and what are your personal feelings about the issue. The key here is that he gains an understanding of the issue and how you think about the issue.
From that point he would most likely ask more questions and provide guidance as to what the law says, what is customarily done, and what are the most likely outcomes.
3. If I presented you with an issue that pitted my personal benefit against the greater good of society, how would you deal with me?
Best answer: This is an important element and issue in business. The most likely situation will pit the owner against his staff such as retirement plans, employment agreements, work related issues (hours, conditions, etc) and policies of the company.
The attorney should answer this in a way that he wants to educate you in your decision. (S)he will point out the long term problems, potential for problems, and even the possibility that you are flat out wrong in your thoughts. But he is there to represent you and will do his best to protect you. In the end, he will do his best to prevent problems but will be there to represent you.
4. Explain to me your fee structure.
Best answer: A good practice has an underlying base charge and an hourly charge for services. Business types of attorneys charge more per unit of measurement than other areas of law. You need to understand that you are hiring a well educated individual that has to address a multitude of misunderstandings about business. (S)he should have a documented time report format and will bill you monthly for services rendered. It is common for them to want a retainer, expect $2,000 to $4,000 depending on the nature of your case.
Remember when I started out I said that I only met two attorneys I like? Well the second guy was in this large practice and he told me that he had the best job in the world. He was able to practice business law and his partners practiced the other areas of law. He got to meet a lot of people and he thought life was grand. When it came to practicing business law, he told me that he learned more from his clients than he did in school. For him, the key was asking questions. He was upfront about the whole thing; ‘I may not know how to serve a customer, but I love learning how others serve customers’. He wanted to learn from the client. This meant he followed a policy of learning and teaching to resolve issues. Act on Knowledge.