Finding the Right Lawyer
Entrepreneur's New Year’s Guide
Small but growing businesses face many legal questions. While most small businesses would agree they need to hire counsel, determining what types of attorneys they need and where to find them isn't as clear.
From the beginning, most new businesses need legal advice regarding a wide range of matters. These include whether your business should be a sole proprietorship or a corporation and what type of corporation you should form. Partners need a partnership agreement; leases have to be negotiated; and zoning issues may arise.
You also need to consider the types of liability issues inherent in your business. For instance, do you lease or buy vehicles and equipment? If you have employees, you may need legal advice regarding medical insurance, workers' compensation insurance, liability problems and labor relations questions. You'll likely need contracts for your buying and selling arrangements. In addition, the need for legal counsel may also depend on what type of business you have. For example, if you have a product or a service, you may need a trademark, service mark or a patent. And what if your business needs to sue or gets sued?
Can a business get by with one attorney advising on such a broad range of issues? There are many attorneys who specialize in representing small businesses. Think of this type of lawyer as a general medical practitioner, who must be a good diagnostician, who treats patients for many conditions and who will refer them to a specialist when the need arises. An experienced small business lawyer should be able to counsel clients on all of the above issues while recognizing when to refer them to a specialist because the matter has become too complex or beyond the general knowledge of the attorney. For example, referrals may be needed when applying for a patent, dealing with IRS disputes or facing a discrimination suit by an employee.
There are several ways to locate an attorney experienced in advising small business clients. Usually, the best way is a referral from someone you know who also owns a small business. Satisfied clients are still an attorney's preferred source of new clients. If you know a lawyer with a different specialty, such as probate or family law, a few friendly questions can put you on the right track. You might also check with family members or friends. Ask other business professionals you know or use who come into frequent contact with lawyers, such as your accountant, banker, real estate broker or insurance agent.
If you still need help, you can look to trade groups or industry associations. Local bar associations often have referral services. Also, Yellow Pages are full of advertising attorneys. But be aware that these last sources do little or no screening of attorneys' experience or qualifications. If you resort to finding an attorney in one of these ways, be sure to screen them thoroughly. Ask for and follow up on referrals from clients with small businesses. Check with the State Bar Association and the Better Business Bureau for complaints.
Once you have the names of qualified small business attorneys, shop around. Meet with each of the attorneys and ask questions. An experienced attorney will expect a serious prospective client to do just that. Try to judge qualities such as experience, knowledge, personal rapport, accessibility and eagerness to take you on as a new client. Remember, the attorney you hire works for you and it's vital that you select someone you trust, you can communicate with and who will treat you fairly.