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5 Questions to ask before you engage a business lawyer

June 7, 2010

If you are starting up in business, getting the right legal help can be a key to success – especially if you are a creative business.  An effective Intellectual Property strategy to properly structure your IP rights from the beginning really does make a difference to the value of your business as it grows.

I was inspired by the Personal Family Lawyer site to consider what I think are important questions to ask.  This is the first in a series of blog posts aimed at those who are about to engage a business lawyer.  This first one focuses on the 5 questions to ask before engaging a business lawyer so you get a good deal from your lawyer:

 1. What services can you offer to help me set up my new business?

Setting up in business is extremely time consuming.  There is so much information to absorb, so much to learn.  There is no shortage of advice and information – in fact there is far too much, often contradictory, out of date, and not really appropriate information to sift through.

So, look for a lawyer offering a cost effective way to help you reach the right decisions and manage the information overload.  Can they help you work out what is the best way to proceed for your business matter?  Can they help you to distinguish the essential, from the nice to have legal compliance?  Will they be willing to explain why something is required, and when it might be acceptable to use a standard template, and how to implement it?

2. How do you invoice for your services?

This naturally leads into one of the most important questions you should know – how they charge for the work they will do on your behalf.   No one wants surprises!

If the lawyer will not send you clear information about how they bill for their services beware – you could be in for some big surprises about what things cost down the road.

Look for a lawyer who bills on a fixed fee, project basis rather than on an hourly basis, (unless you are engaging in litigation when Court rules often dictate hourly rate charging).  The lawyer you choose should promise to never send you an unexpected bill for quick phone calls or emails.

3. How are you able to be responsive to my needs on an ongoing basis?

You can and should ask your lawyer how they will respond to your ongoing needs, how quickly calls will be returned, and whether there is someone on hand to answer quick questions.  Should you expect to be put straight through to them when you call the office?

A well run practice should not be putting you straight through to your lawyer, because how can such a lawyer be effective and efficient if they are taking every call that comes through?  Calls should be pre-arranged when you are both ready and can focus on your specific needs.

An effective system should give you the names of team members who are able to offer help if you ring the office.  This is because many of your queries are likely to be within the capability of appropriately trained staff to answer.  They will know if they cannot answer your question to fix a set time for you to talk with your lawyer later in the week, or that day if the matter is urgent.  At the appointed time you will have the  lawyer’s full attention to focus exclusively on your matter – meaning you get more value from the interaction.

4. How will you proactively communicate with me on an ongoing basis?

Unfortunately, most solicitors do not proactively communicate with their clients on an ongoing basis. The general thinking in the legal industry is that legal work is transactional in nature and clients will call when something changes. But, this is faulty thinking.  Look for a lawyer who has systems and processes in place to communicate with you proactively.

At the very least your lawyer should proactively communicate with you at least monthly via an informative, easy to read newsletter.

 5. Do you offer an ‘in house lawyer’ service, so I can call about any legal problem I have within my business or private life?

In today’s complex world, lawyers must have specialized training in one or more specific practice areas, such as business, intellectual property, or corporate law. You definitely do NOT want to be working with a lawyer who professes to be an expert in whatever walks through the door.

Trust me, you probably don’t want the lawyer who advised on your branding to also handle your divorce.

However, you do want to be able to tap into the knowledge, skills and insights your business lawyer has developed through years of training and experience as a legal practitioner.  So, you should be able to consult your lawyer on all sorts of legal or financial issues knowing they will be able to guide you towards the exact right expert to help you.

When you ask these 5 questions before hiring a business lawyer, you will know you are engaging an advisor who will help you to make the very best decisions for your business, and who has your long term interests in mind.

What Next?

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This post is part of a series, to view all of the posts in this series, please click here.