When choosing a lawyer, think long term

In search of a good lawyer? Education, expertise and experience, of course, are crucial qualifications to weigh when winnowing your list of candidates. But equally important to small-business owners should be qualities like personality, attentiveness and trustworthiness.

What to consider when choosing a lawyer

“It’s a much more personal relationship,” says Scott Dongoske, president of Winthrop & Weinstine in Minneapolis, about small businesses and their lawyers. Given their complex and growing needs, small businesses often tap lawyers for their business advice as much as their legal expertise.

Most important is finding a lawyer who is willing to make that kind of long-term commitment.

First, get some references, typically from two or three people you trust, says Thomas Shroyer, president and CEO of Moss & Barnett, a Minneapolis law firm. CPAs are your best bet, since they network frequently with lawyers; fellow business owners can also refer some solid candidates, he says.

The interview is the most revealing phase in the process of choosing a lawyer. Business owners usually can pick up within the first five minutes of a meeting whether that lawyer is truly interested in embarking on a relationship, or just paying lip service.

The lawyers that spend more time looking at their watches or answering their cell phones would probably provide their services in the same distracted manner, says Mark Sides, a partner in the emerging companies group at Faegre & Benson, Minneapolis.

Instead, the best lawyers should be more inclined to use their phones to call you — often. “The business owner needs responsiveness,” says Dongoske. “Owners need someone they can get a hold of quite often.”

Although it may seem like a peripheral issue, evaluate the lawyer’s personality and how it fits or conflicts with your own. It’s the first thing Patrick Kelly, shareholder and chair of the emerging business group at Fredrikson & Byron in Minneapolis, recommends to his clients.

While it’s common in the corporate world to find yourself doing business with all types, from surly to shy, a lawyer-business owner relationship is very close. Ask, “ Do I like this person? This may be the most important factor. You’ll spend a lot of time with your lawyer — pick someone you will enjoy working with,” says Sides. If you don’t like the person, or perhaps have a different way of looking at things, you’ll eventually butt heads.

Speaking of heads, avoid lawyers who seem likely to stick theirs in the sand rather than brainstorm creative solutions to problems. Find someone who concentrates on the positive. Ask, “will he or she offer me options and solutions — not just risks and problems?” says Sides. “You don’t want a lawyer who simply says ‘no.’ You want a lawyer who advises you on sensible ways to achieve your business goals.”

“Clients don’t find it helpful for lawyers to say, the law says you can’t do this,” says Kelly. “They want a lawyer who has practical experience, that is a little more creative with his or her advice.”

Make sure the lawyer possesses qualifications that fit your business. A juris doctorate from Yale University and an office full of awards and honors are impressive, but if that lawyer has little experience with small businesses, you might want to reconsider. “Entrepreneurs and their companies have unique and sometimes challenging needs,” says Sides. “You want an attorney who works with these companies regularly.”

Also, ask who will be the principal contact, says James Patterson, founding partner of Patterson, Thuente, Skaar & Christensen, a Minneapolis intellectual property firm. “If you’re meeting with the senior partner, ask if that person is going to be doing the work.”

Passing the workload to a junior legal professional, however, has its advantages: these lawyers often work for cheaper rates, and are still under the direction of the senior attorney, says Patterson. The flip side is that green attorneys might have to work twice as many hours as seasoned ones to get the job done, says Sides.

Also, examine just what kind of small businesses the lawyer has worked with; are those companies within your industry or field? If so, are they the same size as your company? “A small business with $10 million in revenue is going to have different needs than a start-up,” says Kelly.

Determine how long the lawyer has practiced law: Two years or 20 years? Lawyers with longer track records often have an extensive network of contacts, such as venture capitalists, angel investors and accountants, who can assist a business, says Kelly. Find a strong generalist who can nevertheless advise on a wide range of issues and refer others. “They’re the quarterback,” he says. “They need to provide a good service,” but also let owners know when they need to talk to a tax specialist or a patent specialist.

A budget is often first on a small-business owner’s mind, especially in today’s sluggish economy. Determine during your interview that you won’t be charged for that time. “Make it clear what you are doing and that you’re not going to pay a fee until you decide which attorney to hire,” says Shroyer. Almost all attorneys will give a “no charge” initial interview of up to one hour, he says.

Knowing well their financial confines, lawyers often bill small-business clients for a package of basic services. Law firms that bill hourly should, of course, be quizzed on their rates for the lawyer you’ll be working with, associates and paralegals, says Shroyer.  But that doesn’t always present a clear picture of the costs involved. “Owners need a general ballpark estimate for basic services to give a better idea where they fit in the cost structure,” says Patterson.

An efficient, fair-billing attorney with the highest rate may actually be a much better value than one “who lowballs on the rate but runs wild on the hours,” says Shroyer. He adds a caveat for small firms of fewer than 15 attorneys: “Be sure to get proof that they have malpractice insurance.” Nearly 50 percent of all law firms carry no such insurance, he says, “and if something goes wrong, you are left holding the bag.”

You may not like legal bills, says Sides, “but you should feel that your investment in your lawyer is helping secure a future of growth and success for your business.”

If you pick the right lawyer, don’t be surprised if that person is still a part of your business 30 years, an IPO and millions in revenue down the line. Says Shroyer: “In the end, these personal qualities are most likely to make all of the difference in terms of your satisfaction and the results you achieve.


Sarah Brouillard