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Hire That Lawyer

16 things you need to know…When hiring and managing a lawyer

It is often said that we are a nation of laws. We may find ourselves in a situation where we have to hire a lawyer to interpret the law, or in cases that are not absolutely clear, to provide a judgment on what the law is likely to be.

In many cases, interpretation of law and judgment concerning risks is the application of the cost benefit judgment that we use all the time in our daily lives. To soften the prospect of hiring a lawyer, there are some considerations which would be useful for a business owner and upper level management to consider when deciding exactly who to hire and under what circumstances. Here we go…

  1. Think through the reason why you want a lawyer. What are the questions and issues you want to discuss? Lawyers charge for time, so narrow your request and gather appropriate documents to be prepared with exact questions. Your upfront hard work will secure a more efficient, and inexpensive, answer.
  2. Once you have identified the subject matter, ask for recommendations from trusted people who may have dealt with lawyers concerning similar situations. Ask your accountant, banker, good friend, local bar association, or any business group you may be involved with, to give you the names of lawyers believed to have experience and good judgment in your field of inquiry.
  3. Narrow your search to three lawyers, but have at least two options in order to make a comparison. If a lawyer shows up more than once in your inquiries, talk to that lawyer first.
  4. When you call to set up an appointment with the lawyer, confirm the meeting is a no cost interview. Most good lawyers will do this, although they may ask some general questions about the subject matter and the value of the transaction or advice you are seeking. In other words, in your mind, rate the importance (and value) of why you want to see a lawyer and tell them. If there is a party on the other side, it is more efficient to tell the lawyer you are interviewing up front so that they can determine if there is a conflict. A conflict of interest can be as simple as the lawyer already representing the opposing party.
  5. Confirm with the lawyer that the preliminary information you are providing in the interview is to be treated as confidential and cannot later be revealed without your permission. In other words, you have an attorney-client privilege with your potential lawyer even if you don’t hire them after the interview. It is important that you make this clear.
  6. Find out what experience the lawyer has in the area you are seeking advice. Ask for specific examples of past work. If the matter is significant, ask for references and check them before you make your final decision.
  7. Find out which professional associations the lawyer is involved with. Sometimes these organizations rate lawyers. Use the internet to ‘Google’ the interviewee to find out if he or she has been involved in a lawsuit or if there are any public complaints about the lawyer.
  8. Make sure the lawyer speaks clearly, and directly, in a style and language you can understand. Lawyers who tend to use a lot of fancy words to impress you may not be he best fit. Potentially, the answers to your questions could be so complicated that they are essentially useless to make judgment calls.
  9. Find out how the lawyer bills and inquire about the billing rates of those who will assist them. You should enter into a written agreement that outlines all details and requires the lawyer to bill you no less than once a month. The lawyer’s statement should describe what was done during the billing period sufficiently so that you can fully understand what was accomplished. A billing statement that reports “4 hours in reading documents” is not as useful as a billing statement that reports “4 hours in reading the correspondence in the two months leading up to the contract in order to understand intent.”
  10. After you have hired the lawyer and explained the issue in more detail, ask to be provided with a plan for the performance of the legal services. In other words, you and the lawyer should agree on a specific plan of action that sets out the various steps of their job. If they are to review documents, obtain a general list of documents to be reviewed. If they are to do research, learn the subject matter and the purpose of the research. If they are advising you in a lawsuit, have them outline the general steps and expected results. Finally, require a general estimate of cost—in the beginning this will be nothing more than scoping, or a boundary answer of what they think the cost will be.
  11. After you have outlined the general plans, have the lawyer take each of the steps and make them more specific. For example, what they plan to accomplish on a bi-weekly basis. Control your destiny! The worst way not to control your destiny is failure to have definitions of your lawyer’s work: when it will be done, and how long it will take so that you can monitor the cost. At the same time, you don’t want to be a pest. You have to develop a relationship with the lawyer so they like to work for you and appreciate your involvement. If you have made a mistake and hired the wrong lawyer, you should know earlier rather than later.
  12. Sometimes lawyers may entertain a flat fee for a project and you should inquire. At times, they are also willing to give reduced rates with a success fee for a complicated project completed in an efficient and good manner so you should inquire. You may want to pay the lawyer, out of necessity, after the deal takes place and some may be willing to accept this if they feel the success possibility is quite high. And, in some cases you may actually want to offer the lawyer an interest in the business transaction in exchange for his legal fees.
  13. If the matter you seek advice on is a lawsuit, many lawyers work on a contingent fee basis. That means they don’t get paid unless they are successful. This kind of fee arrangement is not always applicable to every fact pattern, but it is worth inquiring into.
  14. In managing your lawyer, do not be afraid to exercise the control of a client. If you are relatively unsophisticated in the issues involved, explain that. They should be willing, and able, to communicate in a way that allows you to understand the risks and benefits in each course of action.
  15. Make your own business decision as to how you will handle the situation after you have obtained a firm explanation of all legal issues and risks on both sides. If the matter is large enough for two lawyers in the firm to work on, make friends with the younger lawyer. It is always best to develop a social relationship, even if it is over an occasional lunch, so that you can ask informal questions along the way.
  16. Pay your bills on time and if for some reason you are unable to do so, call your lawyer and explain why.

Just remember, hiring a lawyer should not be a complicated process and you may even make a friend!

If you have a particular subject that you would like me to cover in this column, send me an e-mail. I would be interested in your comments. Until then, be well and good business.