I was recently asked by a client of mine, an entrepreneur, on how can an entrepreneur narrow down on a good lawyer? Considering that most of the entrepreneurs begins with very little money, there are various factors that he/she has to keep in mind while hiring a good lawyer. Having an entrepreneurial streak in myself, I had contemplated this question. Where and what would I look for to find a good lawyer who I can continuously turn to? What are the qualities that he/she would need to have? After a while in practice, most lawyers tend to get good at their particular area of practice, however it as a start up sometimes it is better to look for a generalist commercial lawyer as opposed to a specialist. My tips for hiring a good lawyer would include keeping the following in your mind.
1. Do you have a friend or family member who is a lawyer?
As with most things in life, the best place to start is to look is within your immediate circle. This initial search may not turn up any lawyers with the specific expertise you might need. Don’t despair–use those as names as resources. Lawyers know other lawyers, so if your close friend is not the area of law that you want, he might certainly know someone who has the expertise in your area. Also a friend would really want to help you out, so if you have lawyer friends it is always good to start with them
2. Check the web or legal directories
This goes without saying. Web is the starting point for many things these days. To be honest, you can buy yourself into getting listed on most of the legal directories that are online. The more you pay, the more “better” lawyer you are. But having said that there are still some directories that can be considered to be accurate. Martindale is a good resource. They are fairly reliable. Legal 500 is dependable if you are checking for lawyers outside UK. In my opinion, in Legal 500 there are far too many law firms listed in UK and the top rated ones are certainly not the ones that can be afforded by start ups. One thing to be kept in mind is that the lawyers and law firms pay a lot of money to get listed in the directories.
3. When it comes to services, always think small.
Law firms range in size from one lawyer to over 3,000. Size matters. “If you are Gordon Gekko and want to have a hostile takeover of Bluestar, think big firm.” Otherwise, most of the work can be handled by a smaller law firm. If you are looking for someone to negotiate a lease for your new office, a smaller firm will be able to handle that. Majority of the legal service that is required by a start up business can be handled by a smaller law firm or by a single lawyer. It is better to stick to the smaller firm for such work. (After all, you don’t want a large firm letting its younger, more inexperienced staffs learn on your pounds). While we are at this point, the same rule goes while appointing web designers, accountants or tax specialist.
4. Hire a generalist business lawyer
This is a point that many lawyers (especially the specialists) would disagree with me. It needs to be kept in mind that for an entrepreneur, it is best to hire a generalist business lawyer as opposed to a specialist. Specialist would prove to be expensive and you have to go to a different person for each area. Whereas if you have one lawyer who is a generalist, your immediate answers are taken care of. Specialist needs to be used only once the business starts flourishing. For example if you need to get a complex patent or if you need to do a trademark litigation, then a specialist IP lawyer is needed, but certainly not at the beginning stage of a business.
5. Grill Them
Personally I am not a big fan of this, why would I be, after all I am a lawyer, but were I a client, I would do it and it is highly recommended that the lawyers you are going to use is grilled to determine if he/she is the right person for the job. At your first meeting, ask a lot of questions, regarding both your particular matter and the lawyer’s practice. Some good ones would include: How many similar matters have you handled? What were the results of those cases? Which lawyer in the firm will be working on your case? Will there be any limitations on the scope of the representation? How will you be kept informed about the progress of the case? How quickly do you respond to phone calls and e-mails? How can I reach you after normal business hours? Be aware: Some lawyers may charge you for the initial consultation–this is not uncommon.
6. Use Your Lawyer Intelligently
I hate to admit it (and other lawyers are going to hate me as well for admitting it), but it is a fact that many entrepreneurs overspend on legal fees because they let their lawyer do everything. To save money on legal fees, it’s a good idea to do some of the work yourself. Draft a contract and then have your lawyer improve on it, rather than have them do it all. These days, you can find sample contracts and agreements on the Internet. However, do it only if you have the time. If you can use this time for doing something else, use it for that and not doing the legal work yourself.
7. Understand the Fee Structure Thoroughly
Lawyers generally charge one of three ways: by the hour, a one-time flat fee or by contingency (percentage of the amounts recovered). Not every fee structure is permitted for every legal situation. For certain business transactions, such as incorporation, they’ll charge a flat fee; and for most other matters, they will charge by the hour. As a start up, try not to hire an attorney that charges by the hour. Most of the business related transaction can be done in a fixed fees. If lawyer has done a particular kind of work previously, they will know who long it will take, give or take a few hours. It is always better to go with a lawyer who charges a fixed fee. This would enable you to determine your costs in advance.
8. Understand the Engagement/Client care Letter
Client care/engagement letter is the working contract between you and your lawyer, so read it carefully. The engagement letter should describe the nature of your legal matter, as well as all of the terms and conditions of the relationship, including the hourly rate, the expenses you will be responsible for, the amount of the retainer and any other matters you agreed to. If you are unsure about something in the engagement letter, call and ask. Otherwise, if you sign and return the letter, you will be bound by it.
9. Bottom line: Hire a Smart Lawyer Who You Get Along With.
You will certainly need a good, smart lawyer who will work hard on your behalf and execute all assignments in a prompt and efficient manner. But you also need a lawyer who you get along with and like. It is always good to hire an above average lawyer who you get along well with rather than a highly competent lawyer who is very difficult to get along with. This a tip both for the lawyer as well as for the entrepreneur. A lesson I learned very early in life. One of the senior lawyers I have worked with after graduating was a very experienced lawyer, perhaps the best commercial litigators I have seen so far. He had over 30 years experience, however he has never been able to retain clients, all his clients come to him once and never returns, in spite of him winning cases for them. While he is well off, he is nowhere near as the Managing partner of the law firm I worked with next. The Managing partner of my second firm was a mediocre lawyer, ten years of experience and certainly did not possess the legal acumen of my previous boss. However she had a very enviable client list, and while I do not know the figures, I am certain, she made twice the money made by my previous boss. She was not the best lawyer I worked with, but she certainly was the most charming person, she got along well with the clients, delivered their work promptly. If she did not have the answers, she made sure she found out the answers and had some very good lawyers working for her. The clients stayed with her. Some of which she advised as a start up stuck with her even after their IPO. Lucky if you find someone with a good legal acumen and a charm but if not stick to someone above average but will get your job done rather than who you cannot get along with.
What all things do you consider while hiring a lawyer ? Please share it with me in comments below!