Q: I've only been in business for six months, but I may need a lawyer. My legal budget and my budget for printer cartridges are about the same. How can I get the help I need without going broke?
A: You don't have to be an indentured servant of the Bar Association or American Express for the rest of your life. By using a little common sense, you should be able to find someone to help solve your legal problems and stay sane and solvent. Before casting your net for legal help:
- Ask yourself, What exactly is the problem? Is it simple, such as filing a document with the state, or more complex, such as figuring out whether your trusty accountant is guilty of larceny? Get a handle on the problem and your legal budget; then you can figure out possible solutions.
- Contact family, friends and business buddies to see if they know attorneys who handle your type of problem. Collect several names, so you'll have a choice. If your problem is so exotic that no one has a suggestion, contact your local bar or a lawyer locator service. As Ohio attorney Christopher J. Mallin puts it, "Finding a good attorney is like finding a good auto mechanic. There's quite a lot of luck involved."
Here are some useful resources to help you find an attorney:
- Find Law (http://www.findlaw.com/business.html) has a useful Small Business Center in addition to attorney listings.
- Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory (http://www.lawyers.com) specializes in finding lawyers for small businesses.
- West Legal Directory (http://www.lawoffice.com) also provides an extensive listing of lawyers.
Once you've located some candidates, interview them either by phone or in person. Briefly explain your problem, and ask if they've handled similar cases before and, if so, how many. Ask each candidate to outline a "game plan" and estimate how long it would take to solve your problem. Collect a few references. Trust your intuition as to whether you could work with this person, especially if you want a long-term business advisor.
Assuming Uncle Brad's trust isn't paying for this, ask your chosen attorney to name some tasks you can do yourself. Gathering documents or copying records isn't something a paralegal needs to do for $75 an hour. Pulling information together and organizing it yourself will cut billable hours. Washington, DC, attorney Linda J. Ravdin contrasts this approach with "shopping-bag people, who bring in reams of unsorted information for the attorney to rifle through." Do as much legwork as possible yourself.
Be assertive. Ask for a "letter of engagement," which spells out what your attorney will (and won't) do for you. Attorneys juggle clients and may not update you as often as you'd like. If you have a question, contact your lawyer before a crisis blooms.
Most legal matters get settled out of court, so be ready to deal. Don't use revenge or thirst for justice as a measure-that pound of flesh is never as tasty after you unwrap it. "Lawyers have much more success when clients use business judgment rather than emotions in reaching a settlement," says Cleveland attorney Frank de Santis. Remember the point: to solve the problem and get on with business. So brainstorm a solution, then let your lawyer put it in writing and handle the details.
Another bit of advice: Don't be a deadbeat. Pay your attorney promptly (you never know when a legal problem will crop up again) or arrange a payment plan. Checks make even battle-scarred lawyers smile!
Joan E. Lisante is an attorney and freelance writer who lives in the Washington, DC, area. She writes consumer-related legal features for The Washington Post, the Plain Dealer (Cleveland), the Spokane Spokesman-Review and the Toledo Blade (Ohio). She is also a contributing editor to LawStreet.com and ConsumerAffairs.com. In her practice, Lisante is counsel to ConsumerAffairs.com and was counsel for Zapnews, a fax-based customized news service for radio stations. Previously, she served as Assistant District Attorney in Queens County, New York, and Deputy District Attorney in Nassau County, New York.
The opinions expressed in this column are those of the author, not of Entrepreneur.com. All answers are intended to be general in nature, without regard to specific geographical areas or circumstances, and should only be relied upon after consulting an appropriate expert, such as an attorney or accountant.