Caption: Having the right attorney can protect (and propel) your business more than you think
Despite what TV viewers witness during popular courtroom dramas, litigators (who regularly appear before judges and juries) make up only a minority of the various types of practicing attorneys. Companies often hire business lawyers (aka “transactional” or “corporate” attorneys) to assist them with a variety of administrative, contractual, and operational matters. Here is some meaningful advice on how to select the best attorney for your business.
Assess Your Business’ Legal Needs
Corporate attorneys are among the most unsung in the legal profession, yet they provide a critical service by quietly advising business owners on how to maximize their chances for success within the confines of the law. This holds true for all types of businesses, whether they be a corner grocery store, a tech startup, or a huge Super Bowl-favorite franchise.
Your business’ market space and ambitions will define the legal expertise that would be the most useful to your company. To better crystallize your business’ legal needs, noodle on the following questions:
- Am I taking (and memorializing) corporate governance actions in compliance with the law?
- How can my business legally minimize future liabilities (e.g., with respect to customer warranties, taxes, contractors, employees, government regulations, etc.)?
- Do I need assistance with one or more contract negotiations?
- Do I need to purchase or lease commercial property?
- Does my business need to create additional divisions or subsidiaries?
- Do I want to sell the company or some (or all) of its assets?
- Do I ever want to take the company public?
- Do I need to raise additional capital?
- Do I need to restructure my company’s existing debt or capitalization?
Corporate attorneys have the legal acumen to offer you counsel in all operational legal matters, including forming your company, drafting and negotiating contracts, purchasing or selling a business, constructing a business plan, implementing business strategies, and managing an IPO (just to name a few).
M&A attorneys—i.e., attorneys who are experts in business acquisitions and combinations—offer particularly versatile corporate law expertise, since M&A lawyers must have a working understanding of several corporate topics, including IP, real property, business governance, taxes and accounting, insurance and environmental matters.
Get a Recommendation From a Trusted Source
Please, please, please do not select a corporate attorney by responding to an advertisement or surfing the Internet! The best way to procure solid candidates is to share the specific needs of your business with a friend or lawyer whom you trust and get a referral from them. Ideally, you should get more than one attorney recommendation from your trusted source(s).
Do Some Background Research
Research each referred candidate and the law firms he or she is associated with. The attorney’s website will likely disclose the number of years the attorney has been practicing, as well as his or her practice areas, educational background, and noteworthy transactions, awards, or publications. Also, feel free to peruse any social media accounts they might have on Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, or otherwise.
Furthermore, you can visit the lawyer’s state bar association website to verify that he or she has no disciplinary history and a valid law license.
Have an Initial Consultation
Schedule an initial consultation with each prospective attorney (which, ideally, should be in person and offered free of charge) to discuss the full scope of your legal needs. Use this opportunity to fully explain the role that you expect your counsel will play in achieving your company’s objectives.
Make a list ahead of time of all the questions you need to be answered so that you can determine if he or she exudes the requisite competence—and genuine zeal—to adequately advise you on your company’s objectives. The consummate lawyer is one who recognizes that your business is precious and treats it accordingly.
Moreover, you should be able to discuss critical, confidential matters with your proposed counsel as a trusted confidant (perhaps even a friend), and they should be sincerely motivated to deliver highly-responsive and premium levels of service.
Use the initial consult as a way for both of you to manage each other’s expectations. Your candidate should give you as much detail as possible regarding how much they will be personally involved in the process, when they might delegate tasks to others, how they typically manage their client relationships, etc. Likewise, you should be direct and realistic about your particular management style, as well as the amount of time and attention you’ll likely require of them.
At the end of the day, selecting the right attorney for your business is about your gut feelings, so if during your initial consult you have any apprehension whatsoever, continue your search.
Understand the Attorney’s Fee Structure
During your first meeting, don’t be timid about addressing the topic of fees. When it comes to dealing with estimable professionals, it will behoove you to address money sooner rather than later. Lawyers may propose a selection of fee structures; sole practitioners and smaller “boutique” firms will likely have the most creativity and leeway.
Based on your business’ immediate or long-term needs, a corporate lawyer will typically offer you either a flat fee (whether for a specific transaction or on a monthly basis) or an hourly fee structure. Note that most lawyers worth their salt will require a deposit (commonly referred to as a “retainer”) before commencing any substantive work, so don’t be offended by this. However, feel free to take into account how forceful your prospective lawyer is with respect to the size of the retainer and the timing for its delivery.