How to Choose and Work With an Attorney

Smart tips for creating a well-working relationship with a lawyer

While you may not need legal advice on a regular basis, itprobably pays for you to have an attorney for your company on call.That way, when you need legal advice and assistance, you'll beworking with someone whom you're comfortable, and whounderstands the needs of your business.

When will you need legal counsel? Here are some typicalsituations:

  • When you're deciding whether to incorporate - and need tofile the appropriate paperwork
  • When you're trying to write or decipher a complicatedcontract
  • When you're threatened with a lawsuit
  • When you need help collecting a debt
  • When you need information on regulations pertaining to yourbusiness, and assistance in how to comply with them

Hire an attorney who understands your business
Make sure that your attorney (and any other professional advisor)understands the specific needs of your business. When interviewingto select a lawyer, ask whether he/she has previously worked with acompany such as yours - you don't want to have to pay forlearning time. Has the firm worked with small businesses before?What kind? And if your industry has specialized regulatory or otherlegal requirements, you'll want a lawyer who is familiar withthem.

Use referrals
Referrals are the best way to find just about any service you mightneed, and finding an attorney is no exception. Talk to other smallbusiness owners, and to your banker, accountant, or other trustedadvisor. You can also check with your local bar association,although not all of them verify an attorney's specialty orexperience. A bar association referral will, of course, guaranteethat an attorney has passed the bar exam.

Understand your charges before you get a bill
An attorney's fees will vary depending on the location of thepractice, the experience of the attorney, the specialty, andwhether you're dealing with a large firm or a small legaloffice. Fees can range from under $100 an hour to more than$300.

Be aware of how the attorney charges. When you call forassistance, are you being charged for the time on the phone? If so,how are these charges calculated? Are there different ratesdepending on who works on your account - a lawyer, a researcher, aparalegal?

Also, ask in advance whether there will be a charge for theinitial consultation.

Negotiate a billing method that suits your needs
Most small business people pay attorneys when they need them - ifan attorney does two hours of work, you pay for that time. If youhave an ongoing relationship with your attorney, you will probablybe billed once a month for services rendered.

Another option is to have an attorney on retainer, but that israre for small businesses. Retainer means that you pay a fee to anattorney to be available to do an agreed-upon amount of duties foryour company on an ongoing basis. If you head into heavylitigation, or a special project, additional fees arenegotiated.

It is sometimes possible to obtain a prepaid legal plan whereyou get a variety of services for a flat annual fee. Ask your localbar association if this is available in your area, or contact theAmerican Prepaid Legal Services Institute at 312-988-5751.

There are a number of ways you can save money on your legalbills. Here are some suggestions:

Be organized for all meetings with your lawyer, because theclock is ticking. Make non-legal phone calls yourself. Do basicresearch yourself. Prepare a contract and show it to your attorneyrather than asking him/her to prepare it.

The viewsand opinions contained herein are not necessarily those of AmericanExpress and are intended as a reference and for informationalpurposes only. Please contact your attorney, accountant or otherbusiness professional for advice specific to yourbusiness.

Copyright © 2002 American Express Company. All RightsReserved.

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