Attorneys are like doctors and accountants -- some are great and some are terrible. Just because they went to school for a few extra grueling years and passed the tests that enable them to practice doesn’t mean that they are exceptional at their job. This also doesn’t mean that they aren’t going to take advantage of you as you embark on your early lessons in both legal counsel and hourly expenses.
To be clear, this is not an article meant to attack or berate the lawyers of the world. I have a lot of respect for great attorneys and use them for nearly everything that I do in business. Instead, we’ll look at some of the early questions you should be asking and warning signs you should be recognizing when searching for new legal counsel. To round out these points of view, I’ve enlisted the help of Scott Alderton of Stubbs, Alderton and Markiles, a Los Angeles-based law firm that is well respected in the booming Southern California business and startup scenes.
So how do you find a great attorney? I thought you’d never ask.
Related: How to Find the Right Lawyer for You
Do your research. Like anything in life, you have to put in the time to get the best results. This is no different when it comes to finding your new attorney, so use your network of friends, colleagues and business associates to get a recommendation on attorneys that they’ve worked and had great experience with. Although this doesn’t mean that what worked for them will work for you, it’s certainly a good place to start. Be sure that you are seeking out an attorney that is specialized in your field of need.
“There are different generals for different types of wars, and you need a lawyer who really gets what you are trying to do,” Alderton says.
I couldn’t agree more. You wouldn’t hire a dermatologist to perform your knee surgery, would you? So don’t hire a real estate attorney to put together your new startup’s operating agreement, even if it’s your brother-in-law and he agreed to give you a “family” discount. All attorneys are not the same.
Don’t be afraid to work with an attorney that represents your competitors.
“if your lawyer does not represent multiple players in your industry, they likely can’t be very effective," Alderton says. "There are clear ethical guidelines that lawyers must follow that will adequately protect your proprietary assets.”
The attorney should notify you in advance of any conflicts or particular legal issues on which they may not be able to represent you.
Ask the right questions. The relationship you have with your attorney is like any other relationship -- it must be a good fit for both parties to work properly. To get started on the right foot, you must ask the right questions from the start.
Alderton says that you need “a lawyer with a deep contextual understanding of both the substantive nature of your evolutionary path (i.e. they understand and do the exact type of transactions you are going to be engaging in) and a broad understanding of your industry.”
You’re going to have to ask a lot of questions and be specific to accomplish this. Don’t hesitate to push for answers, and if they aren’t satisfactory, move on -- particularly with respect to understanding the fee and hourly billing structures. Trust me, you don’t want to learn how an attorney bills via your first invoice.
Run for the hills. You should avoid the attorney that you can't walk in and have a meeting with because of their geography, is going to bill you for their education on your business area or that doesn’t have the ability to answer a question directly. For example, if you ask a question about a specific provision of your partnership agreement and they come back with unrelated information about a potential office lease, which had nothing to do with your question and includes additional hourly fees, it’s likely that you are being taken advantage of -- whether intentionally or not.
“I would avoid an attorney who won’t agree up front to personally deeply engage with you," Alderton says. "At the end of the day, you are hiring a lawyer, not a law firm. Many attorneys want to engage outside of their sweet spot because they believe the client has potential, or might evolve into a valuable client. They prioritize their client base, and either push you down to other resources within the firm, or only pay attention to you when absolutely necessary."
He adds, "You need to hire a lawyer who is committed to you.”