How to Choose a Great Business Lawyer for Your Business: My Top Ten Tips

Conventional wisdom (and many lawyers) will tell you that, if you’re a business owner or manager, you will get yourself in trouble if you don’t have a good business lawyer. But when I hear this, I view this as somewhat of a negative statement, which frankly annoys me. I assume that smart business people do not want to be belittled and told that, they if they don’t have a lawyer, they will be too naive or inexperienced to avoid pitfalls.

Another way of saying this is that I personally hate doing anything to move away from something. I much prefer to make choices that allow me to move towards perceived advantages of my actions. So I address my clients accordingly.

So with this in mind I will rephrase the primary benefit of having a great lawyer by your side as follows: you will make more money. You should thus view a business lawyer as your partner who will help you make the choices that will improve your business and drive your bottom line upwards.

Now, if you are looking for a lawyer or are not happy with your present lawyer, how do you choose a great business lawyer. But first a definition. What is a business lawyer? I personally distinguish a business lawyer from a corporate or commercial lawyer. To me the business lawyer in the classic sense of the term denotes the classic lawyer-client relationship where the lawyer is more than someone who cranks out paper. I define the business lawyer as your quasi business partner or confidante. Someone you can confide it, who can solve your problems, understand you and help you grow.

Now Here are my TOP 10 TIPS to choosing a GREAT BUSINESS LAWYER, not in any order of importance.

10. Don’t assume you need a big blue chip firm. I come from several big blue chip law firms. They do great law and sometimes you need the “brand” or “label” of the big law firm next to you, for instance if you’re going public. But for more routine work, you don’t need such a firm. They are expensive and comprise many layers. So for you to deal with the top dog, you will be paying up to $1,000 per hour, or more. If your budget is one quarter of this, you will mostly be dealing with a junior associate who will not have the business experience you are looking for. It really depends on your needs, and your budget.

9. Don’t focus only on the billable hour rate. If you’re hesitating between someone who costs you $250 per hour and someone else at $350 per hour, don’t make your decision strictly on cost. What matters are two things: first what the final bill will be and, second, what value who will have received. The hourly rate is a red herring. What is the point of asking someone to do a job for you at $250 per hour if the person needs 40 hours for the job where the other lawyer at $350 per hour only needs 20 hours? Particularly if the other lawyer can do a better job for you. Billing policy is too much of a thorny and elaborate issue to address in a few lines. My point is simply that the hourly rate is not the be all and the end all.

8. Look for someone you would be happy to have a drink with. If your relationship with your business lawyer is going to be successful, you need to connect with him (her) on a personal basis. It is to your advantage to let your lawyer into your life as a quasi-friend. For this to happen there must be personal chemistry.

7. Look for business experience. If your business lawyer is going to advise you on your business, it is trite to say that having business experience is a must. Again it goes to the difference between dealing with a junior associate just out of school and someone who has real practical hands on business experience.

6. Look for someone open to a fixed fee arrangement. No one I know wants to retain a lawyer not knowing what the final bill will be. While this is often difficult for a lawyer to estimate, he (she) may be open to a flexible or fixed fee arrangement. And he (she) should be able to give you at least a good idea on the fees.

5. Look for a deal maker not a deal breaker. In any business deal, there can be dozens of reasons why the deal can’t work or why the agreement is not right. You don’t want a lawyer that throws unnecessary obstacles to making the deal work. It takes a practical approach. It is all about business risk and your lawyer should give you the pros and the cons and provide advice rather than blocking the deal.

4. Think of your business lawyer as your part-time VP legal. Some business lawyers are open to retainer arrangements where they will agree to act as your part-time VP legal at a lower cost than hiring a law firm. A lawyer could for instance offer to work a certain numbers of days per month for you at a fixed fee. It could save you money and help you grow your business with a smart person on the inside who gets to understand your business inside out.

3. Find someone with good business connections. Getting things done in this world often requires a good business network. Having access to this through your lawyer is invaluable.

2. Find a people person. If you want your lawyer to make things happen for you, he (she) will need to be someone who does not antagonize everyone around him (her). Having someone who relates well with other people can be a key to making something work.

1. Think bottom line. Lawyers cost money but I submit this should not be your first thought. What you should be thinking about is whether by spending say $1,000 your lawyer can help you generate $2,000. If so, the lawyer is not a cost. He (she) is a co-generator of a rate of return of 100%. If you think about it that way and your lawyer delivers, the cost will not be so bad to digest.

With these elements, you will be in a position to make the best decision for what works for you.