Ask for recommendations from business owners in your industry or from professionals such as bankers or accountants you trust. Don't just get names; ask them for the specific strengths and weaknesses of the attorneys they recommend. Then take the process one step further: Ask your business associates' attorneys whom they recommend and why. (Attorneys are more likely to be helpful if you phrase the request as "If for some reason I couldn't use you, who would you recommend and why?") If you still need more prospects, contact your local Bar Association; many of them have referral services.
Next, set up an interview with the top five attorneys you're considering. Tell them you're interested in building a long-term relationship, and find out which ones are willing to meet with you for an initial consultation without charging a fee. Cover the following areas in your interviews of each attorney:
- Experience. Although it's not essential to find an expert in your particular field, it makes sense to look for someone who specializes in small-business problems as opposed to, say, maritime law. Make sure the lawyer is willing to take on small problems; if you're trying to collect on a relatively small invoice, for example, will the lawyer think it's worth his or her time?
- Understanding. Be sure the attorney is willing to learn about your business's goals. You're looking for someone who will be a long-term partner in your business's growth. Sure, you're a startup today, but does the lawyer understand where you want to be tomorrow and share your vision for the future?
- Ability to communicate. If the lawyer speaks in legalese and doesn't bother to explain the terms he or she uses, look for someone else.
- Availability. Will the attorney be available for conferences at your convenience, not his or hers? How quickly can you expect emergency phone calls to be returned?
- Rapport. Is this someone you can get along with? You will be discussing matters close to your heart with this person, so make sure you feel comfortable doing so. Good chemistry will ensure a better relationship and more positive results for your business.
- Reasonable fees. Attorneys charge anywhere from $90 to $300 or more per hour, depending on the location, size and prestige of the firm as well as the lawyer's reputation. Shop around and get quotes from several firms before making your decision. However, beware of comparing one attorney with another on the basis of fees alone. The lowest hourly fees may not indicate the best value in legal work because an inexperienced attorney may take twice as long to complete a project as an experienced one will.
- References. Don't be afraid to ask for references. What types of businesses or cases has the attorney worked with in the past? Get a list of clients or other attorneys you can contact to discuss competence, service and fees.