Dealing with lawyers can be frustrating for many entrepreneurs. But no matter how careful you are with your business, sometimes it is unavoidable. Here are a few simple rules that can help the process when you start working with a new attorney.
1. Write down a chronological history of the problem, with the concerns that you have at the end of your history. Do not just go in and verbally tell your attorney what happened while he makes notes on a legal pad. No matter how smart your new attorney is, he or she isn't involved in your business and doesn't understand some of the nuances that you understand. If you give your attorney a detailed explanation of the problem in writing, the entire process will proceed much faster and more efficiently. Remember, while the facts may be clear in your mind, just telling a lawyer what has happened verbally is no substitute for a clearly written chronological document.
2. Ask your attorney to tell you what experience he or she has in your area of concern. This way you will have some sense of your attorney's knowledge and understanding of the issues. You may even want to ask for references from others who have worked with this attorney on similar issues.
3. Ask your attorney up front about the amount of the retainer that will be required for his or her services. Most good attorneys will require a retainer, so you may as well be prepared to offer one. The fact is, your attorney is also a business person; he or she will pay closer attention to you and your problems if there is money on the table.
4. While you're talking about money, ask your attorney about hourly rates, does he or she bill in minute increments, how much is charged for a quick informational phone call and when and how often will you be invoiced. It's best to know these things before you start running up charges.
5. Ask if there is anything you can do to help keep costs down.
6. Once you feel that your attorney has a good grasp of the problem, ask him or her to estimate what your total legal cost, including fees, will be.
7. Ask for legal alternatives in resolving your problem.
8. Ask for an estimate of how long it will take to bring the problem to a conclusion.
9. Ask how your attorney will keep you informed of progress in your case. Will it be by phone? E-mail? Regular mail? And how often can you expect to hear from your attorney?
10. If you have been unsatisfied with your dealings with a previous attorney, don't hesitate to share the reasons for your concern. If you felt your previous attorney charged too much, didn't return phone calls or e-mails, didn't stay focused on your problem or had to be reminded to follow through with agreed-upon tasks, tell your new attorney about it. This will provide him or her with a sense of your expectations and needs.
My experience and the experience of others with whom I associate indicates that there are many good and professional attorneys out there. Unfortunately, there are also attorneys who are bad or mediocre. Finding the right lawyer for you and your business and having the right relationship can make legal wrangling, while not pleasant, at least tolerable.
Joseph Ollivier is affiliated with the Center for Entrepreneurship at BYU. He can be contacted via e-mail at email@example.com.