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Choosing A Small Business Lawyer
by Carasue Moody

Legal advice is never cheap, usually beneficial but not always necessary. Big corporations can afford to keep an attorney on retainer or on staff but small business owners sometimes find themselves in a dilemma, wondering if they need to pay costly attorney fees or if they can handle the problem themselves.

After having been in business for a few years, most owners usually gain some insight as to which situations they can handle and those that require a consultation with an attorney or actually hiring one for representation. Even so, there are some guidelines that may help in making that decision. First, compare the amount of money at stake in the dispute with what an attorney would charge. $200.00 per hour is average and the clock usually starts ticking with your first call. If it can be settled in Small Claims Court, most people who are competent enough to run their own business are also competent enough to represent themselves there. If an attorney’s fee would cost more than what you stand to lose it makes no sense to hire one.

Is the issue burdened with technicalities and complexities? If you’re the type of person who can understand and converse in legal jargon and argue your point clearly you stand a good chance of winning. However, if reading contracts and agreements written in legalese confounds you, it would probably be much safer to pay a lawyer. It’s better to admit to yourself that the complexity is over your head than regret having allowed your pride to cause your downfall.

Consider the end risk. If you make a mistake in a legal filing will you be able to simply resubmit it or would it create a legal nightmare that could take years to un-do? Ask yourself what is the worst that can happen if you undertake the process yourself and botch it.

Some transactions can be managed independently but should be reviewed by an attorney before completion.

Business filings are one. There are books and software packages to guide you through the process of establishing your business as a corporation, LLC or partnership.

The buyer and seller of a business can draw up their own sales agreement but if you’re buying a franchise, have an attorney take a look at the contract to be sure your interests are fairly addressed.

Contracts can be tricky depending on how much hair-splitting is necessary. Nondisclosure and non-compete contracts can usually be accomplished without too much ado but if intricate issues are involved or if you’re uncertain about any underlying issues, an attorney’s fee could be well spent.

Real Estate issues such as leasing property from someone else or going through a zoning process if you’re a property owner seeking a change can be relatively easy. But the purchase of land or a building with pre-existing tenants can be complicated and legal advice is recommended.

Those times when an attorney should definitely be involved are:

When you’re starting a business you want to start off on the right foot. An attorney can advise you on potential liability exposure, business structure and legal consequences that can be avoided.

It’s a good idea to have an attorney look over the contracts you use, especially if your business is more than ordinarily vulnerable to liability suits. Partnership agreements and a prearranged plan for the dissolution of the partnership, in the event that should occur. An estate attorney can help in planning your retirement well before you’re ready to take that step and initiate programs to fund it from the business proceeds.

If you’ve decided to seek an attorney, finding the right one for your needs and one you feel comfortable with is important. Asking other business owners for a referral can often alleviate some disappointment when you begin shopping around. But whether one has been referred or if you’ve selected one independently, you should ask some specific questions and receive satisfactory answers before making the decision to hire him or her.

Some attorneys don’t charge for the initial consultation, some charge a small fee. During this visit is when certain issues should be discussed such as fees, retainers, their expertise and whether your input will be given serious consideration or just brushed aside. Is he or she willing to discuss their strategy with you or just charge ahead without considering your wishes? Will he or she give you references of current or past clients to talk to?

Some questions to ask yourself are if the attorney’s style is compatible with your own. Do they seem too aggressive, too eager to march into court? Do they seem so laid back that they may be unwilling to fight for your interests when necessary? Do they speak to you in language you can understand or do they use legal terms and language that are over your head? Do they seem impatient with your questions or do they respect your concern?

Legalities are as much a part of business as sales, accounting, production and record keeping. And although they can be unpleasant at times, they can’t be avoided or ignored. If you can handle the majority of them yourself you’ll save some money. If you need to hire an attorney, be sure you feel confident and comfortable with them.

Interview lawyers with the following questions:

1) Do I need to provide a large retainer to get started?

2) What is your fee schedule for routine and on-routine services?

3) What is your typical response time?

4) Have you worked with any businesses in my industry?

5) How have you helped clients secure business opportunities?