What do you call 99 lawyers at the bottom of the ocean? A good start!
I have been telling this joke for years. It is not that I have a real problem with lawyers in general, I just have a problem with the few bad apples that spoil the whole basket. The good news is that there are plenty of good lawyers out there if you know what to look for. Here are a few of the criteria I personally use when looking for a lawyer for something:
1. Don’t Wait. You know at some point your business will need a lawyer. Waiting until you need one does not give you the time to look around, and pick the best one.
2. Free Initial Meeting. This is the job interview. Be prepared to discuss a real legal issue you have had, or can see yourself having, and get the lawyer’s thoughts on the issue. If they are not willing to meet for free, or are not willing to discuss a real legal issue because they do not give free advice, then move on.
3. Money Talks. I have found that if a lawyer I am meeting for the first time can’t wait to discuss their fee structure you need to run. In fact, I had one lawyer tell me they would not discuss the issue I had brought to discuss because that is what they get paid $200 per hour to help me with. A rule-of-thumb I have found useful is that you should be the one to bring up their fee structure, not them.
4. Business Savvy. One of the jobs your lawyer will have is to look at agreements, and help you understand the risk involved in them. You will want to find a lawyer that understands that running a business is risky, and that can help you balance the risk while still getting things done.
5. Wordiness. Lawyers charge by the word. They disguise it as an hourly fee, but in reality they charge by the word. Try to find a lawyer that communicates clearly and concisely. Words take time to say, so the more words used, the more time they can charge for them. Beware of the lawyer that likes to repeat themselves, or hear themselves talk.
6. Fee Structure. This is important, and maybe the hardest to get right. In some cases, I have found that I need to work with someone for a bit to understand how they will charge me for their services. At the outset, you need to understand their “per hour” fee, and what minimum increment they bill in. For instance, if they bill in 30 minute increments you could get billed 30 minutes for that email it took them 5 minutes to answer.
Some lawyers are still charging what I call a “bogus fee”. This is a fee that helps them offset the cost of running their office. (Their receptionist, office space, photocopier, printer, etc.) These kind of fees drive me crazy. I can somewhat understand that in days past you had to photocopy a ton of stuff for cases, but nearly everything is, or can be, electronic these days. This feels like a bogus fee that lawyers just continue to get away with charging.
I have been fortunate to get to know a couple of really great lawyers. In all cases I never felt like I was getting sucker punched every time I opened their invoice. I had one lawyer I came to trust enough that I didn’t review their monthly invoice detail, I just paid them. I even live next door to a lawyer, and after 6 years we still don’t have a fence between our yards, and I have never gotten a bill for asking the odd legal question!