From the October 2004 issue of Entrepreneur

Hear about the lawyer who fell into a pack of sharks? The sharks refused to attack out of professional courtesy. Lawyer jokes abound because of stereotypes that lawyers are ruthless and greedy. Small wonder most people see a lawyer only when they absolutely have to. And by that time, the situation may be so out of hand that a positive outcome is unlikely.

Entrepreneurs should know better. Yet many view lawyers as people to go to when they're in a jam. Successful business owners, however, view lawyers as people who bring valuable skills and perspectives to the team, and who can teach decision makers what they must know to make an informed decision.

"The decision is in the hands of the entrepreneur," says attorney Michael Massie of Galva, Illinois. "The role of the lawyer is to educate-what problems there might be in the family (if it's a family business), with litigation, with the government." But a lawyer brings more to the table than knowledge of the law. One quality is a tendency to see the big picture. "There's an advantage when someone can think of a business decision in terms of transitions, of what might happen in relationships," he says.

Another is a talent for weighing alternatives, describing the pros and cons of decisions. There are many factors to consider when making business decisions-the financial, the legal, the company's reputation. Before going with a course of action, sit down with your lawyer to think it through. There's also a tendency toward risk management. What could go wrong, and how do we minimize the risk? Lawyers think that way, and it can be a needed skill.

Consulting a lawyer costs money, but you get what you pay for. "It's more cost-effective than being reactive in a crisis-solving mode," says Massie. But not just any lawyer will provide that kind of counsel. You might bring in a big-name lawyer who charges $400 an hour, but if that lawyer doesn't know your business and the people involved in it, his or her advice may be one- or two-dimensional.

"It's worth it if you're paying someone who knows your business," Massie says. That knowledge takes time to develop, but you gain an adviser who knows the law and understands your business. And that's no joke.


Jane Easter Bahls is a writer in Rock Island, Illinois, specializing in business and legal topics.