Tips for Hiring an Attorney
July 21, 2013
Before I begin, I should give credit where credit is due. This article is, largely, a condensed summary of a longer, more thorough, and exceptional article I found on entrepreneur.com entitled “How to Hire an Attorney.” I printed it and posted it on Scribd. You can read it on Scribd or on entrepreneur.com. With my primary source material revealed, cited, and linked, if you want the “TL;DR” version, read on. Hiring an attorney isn’t easy for the average layperson. Hopefully, these tips will help.
Every business needs a lawyer and an accountant. With respect to the people out there who are naive enough to think they can DIY their contracts and other legal services, if you cannot afford a lawyer (and an accountant), you cannot afford to do business. Here’s another dose of reality: you need a lawyer before you get sued. If you have already been sued, your opportunity to save money on legal services has probably already passed you by. As the entrepreneur.com article put it, “the fee a lawyer will charge to keep you out of trouble is only a small fraction of the fee a lawyer will charge to get you out of trouble once it’s happened.”
One point of divergence I have with the entrepreneur.com article is that the author of that article seemed to really focus on the benefits of larger firms. While the author did a good job of pointing out that larger firms can offer more specialization (and more intimidation), they glossed over the mention of higher hourly rates with barely a mention. Moreover, smaller firms can provide all or nearly all of the skills and services you need to grow your business by using associated counsel. Just because a firm may not have an attorney on their payroll that specializes in the kind of service you need, that does not mean the firm cannot connect to an attorney that does, negotiate a reasonable rate for that attorney’s services, and manage them for you as your outside general counsel. This specialist legal professional management service is a service a good business law firm can provide at a feasible cost, regardless of its size.
If you want a lot of details about the various types of attorneys (e.g., contracts, business organizations, real estate, licenses & taxes, intellectual property, etc.), I recommend reading the article linked above. Let’s cut to the chase, shall we? Here is a list of questions to ask when interviewing attorneys:
- Have you ever handled _________________ (insert here the kind of legal matter for which you are hiring the attorney)?
- What connections do you have to other attorneys who practice this kind of law?
- Do you have other clients in my industry?
- What resources do you have that will help me understand what I need to know about the law in this area? Will you take the time to explain what I need to know or expect me to trust you blindly?
- In your firm, are you the guy that usually finds new clients, the guy that takes on new clients and makes sure existing clients are happy, or the guy that actually does the clients’ work?
- How flexible is your billing, and how is it structured?
Once you have interviewed the attorney, evaluate them. Ask yourself these questions:
- Is this person going to second-guess my business judgment, or give me the legal insight I need to make wise business decisions?
- Does this person communicate well? Do they seem like a patient teacher who will explain things to me if I don’t understand them?
- Are the offices conveniently located? Will my lawyer come to me, or expect me to go to them?
- Do I like this person? Don’t forget to listen to your instincts. If you think your personality will clash with your lawyer’s personality to such a degree that you are unlikely to be able to maintain a productive working relationship, consider hiring a different attorney.
There are a wealth of different resources out there to help you find a lawyer. Here are a few I use:
- LinkedIn – You probably already use this great free social networking site for business. Search for an attorney, and check out their recommendations, skills, etc. all listed on their profile.
- Avvo.com – Avvo is a good resource for finding attorneys, and it has a smart interface. It’s free, and you can even post questions and get them answered by professionals. Don’t expect a lot, and you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
- Lawyers.com – This site is good, but lawyers pay for visibility. So, just know that of the listings you find, the most visible ones are the most expensive ones. If you’re looking for a big, expensive law firm, this is a great resource!
- Martindale.com – This is where many lawyers go to find lawyers. You can browse lawyers and firms by practice area. Again, be aware that lawyers and firms pay for better visibility on this site.
- Word-of-mouth – You’ve probably heard of Six Degrees of Separation. Odds are you are not more than two or three degrees of separation away from a good attorney or, at least, an attorney who can give you a solid reference. Don’t be shy about asking an attorney for a referral. Good referrals are always free.
Let’s talk about money. It’s the elephant in the room, right? If you’re interviewing a business attorney, I think you should ask him what he charges per hour. This is kind-of a trick question. I believe the “billable hour” is a cancer. I hate it. There are so many perverse incentives attached to the billable hour, I avoid using it unless I absolutely have to use it! Flat fees are the way to go in the vast majority of cases – including when you just need to hire outside general counsel for your business. There is a lot more information in the entrepreneur.com article about different kinds of legal billing methods, but nearly all the methods other than flat fee billing are less beneficial to both the client and the lawyer than flat fee billing. One exception is the Contingent Fee for simple plaintiff work (e.g., small claims, insurance settlement negotiation, etc., etc.). I recommend reading the entrepreneur.com article to explore other options, but I don’t mind telling you I use flat fees almost exclusively, because flat fees are almost always a better option for my clients.
Finally, I’ll sum up the last 2/3 of a page in the entrepreneur article with a couple quick sentences. Get a written proposal for representation from the attorney you’re considering hiring. In the proposal, have him estimate the cost of each matter in writing, and describe how bills will be calculated. Also, you should request monthly, itemized bills, and ask about negotiating prompt-payment discounts. Finally, be prepared with all your necessary documentation, and once you hire your lawyer, communicate with them regularly (“regularly” should mean at least once per month, or at least once per week if there is litigation in progress; an email is usually fine and often less expensive if your lawyer bills by the hour).
I hope this was helpful. Again, when you have time, read the entrepreneur.com article. I wrote this summarized version, because the other one is about four pages long, and there is so much good information in it, I wanted people to at least get the highlights, even if they wouldn’t read four pages of really good information about hiring a lawyer. If you have questions you’d like me to answer, feel free to call me at (615) 669-6566.
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