How to Choose the Best Lawyer for Your Small Business

For many entrepreneurs, hiring and working with a lawyer can be an intimidating process.  There are few resources for finding great lawyers for small business owners, and fewer resources about how to use lawyers to achieve desired results.  Hiring a lawyer can also be a costly endeavor, and I have spoken with many entrepreneurs who believe that the cost of working with a lawyer outweighs the benefit.

Reservations surrounding working with a lawyer are understandable.  Still, as a lawyer and entrepreneur myself, I know first hand the value of having a great lawyer on your team.  I routinely encourage entrepreneurs who are struggling to move their businesses forward to consider how working with a lawyer can help them get to the next level.  A great lawyer will support your business efforts, protect your financial and intellectual property, minimize risks, and ultimately save you money down the line.  In fact, no thriving company can go without.

To successfully hire and work with a lawyer, consider implementing the following steps:

1. Let go of preconceived (negative) notions about lawyers

Lawyers are notorious for charging too much, being self interested, and generally having nefarious business intentions.  Of course, this is not accurate when it comes to 99.9% of lawyers.  In reality, many lawyers are profoundly dedicated to their work and go out of their way to service their clients. For instance, when I was practicing at a large firm in Chicago, my colleagues and I spent days, nights, and weekends working hard to achieve desired results for clients on a moment’s notice.  If lawyers are utilized correctly, this will be one of the most supportive and rewarding relationships you will have in your business. However, this depends largely on your ability to abandon negative thoughts and approach the relationship with a positive mindset.

2. Find a lawyer who identifies with your business vision

There are thousands of lawyers in every city in the United States—and thousands of varieties of lawyers.  As with choosing a design and development team, you will want to be proactive about finding the best lawyer for your small business.

Before hiring a lawyer, spend some time researching lawyers in your city who have legal expertise in your particular business space.  Some attorneys specialize in divorce law.  Others are versed in corporate litigation, intellectual property matters, fashion, or sports law.  You will want to be sure you are approaching attorneys who ultimately identify with your business vision.  Most law firm websites will provide detailed information about its lawyers’ practice areas, as well as any niche industries or areas of expertise.  This is a good place to start in finding the right fit for you.

As a startup or small business owner, you will also want to look for a lawyer or legal team that identifies with the startup and small business culture.  For example, a lawyer who runs his own small legal practice—a solo practitioner–will likely have the legal expertise you need, as well as an understanding of your plight as a small business owner.  A solo practitioner is also generally more affordable than a large or mid-sized law firm lawyer.

TIP: Seek out a solo practitioner who has previously worked in a large law firm and has extensive experience with big clients and complex cases.  This way, you are paying solo practitioner rates, but reaping the benefits of the lawyer’s “big firm” experience.  For example, as set forth in his bio, Jeffery Petersen of the Law Offices of Jeffery T. Petersen brings big firm experience to his small business and startup clients.

3. Consult and listen

No matter what type of attorney you consider engaging, you will want to be sure to explain the nature of your business and the support you need in great detail during an initial consultation.  Many lawyers will do an initial consultation free of charge.  To the extent you seek legal advice in this consultation, the conversation surrounding that legal advice will be protected by the attorney-client privilege, even if no money is exchanged and you hire someone else.  So, you should feel free to speak candidly and get to the heart of the kind of help and support you need.

If you are unsure as to the support you need, this is something you can ask your lawyer for advice about as well.  Perhaps you will need intellectual property assistance, but you are not sure if you require trademarks or copyrights.  Perhaps you would like to form a company but you are unclear as to whether it should be an LLC or an Inc.—and what the advantages and disadvantages might be for each.  A large part of your lawyer’s job will be to counsel and guide you through these legal decision-making processes.  Be open to learning from your lawyer’s expertise, and make a point of asking questions and listening closely so you have a clear understanding of the choices you are being counseled to make.    

4. Think value

For the most part, lawyers have a set hourly rate.  Many lawyer rates are admittedly on the higher end, but remember that you are paying for deep expertise and an understanding of complex legal matters that you likely could not handle on your own.  You are also paying for the assurance that you will be spared monetary and other headaches down the line.  A good lawyer is akin to a business partner–you can entrust him or her with the most sensitive and pressing issues in your business, and it is the lawyer’s responsibility to assume the stress of these issues and resolve them.  For many entrepreneurs, this is priceless.

Unlike other industries, lawyers on the whole are also incredibly professional in their dealings and responsive to your communications (if you are dealing with a lawyer who is not both of these things, you would be well advised to consider hiring a new one).  Thus, the value you are getting often exceeds what you are paying.

With this said, some lawyers have flexibility in terms of rates they can charge.  Some lawyers are willing to craft alternative fee arrangements (“AFAs”) or do work on a commission basis, depending on the help you are requesting.  Some lawyers may even be willing to work at significantly reduced rates up front that will increase over time as your business begins to prosper.  Before you engage a lawyer, feel free to inquire about your financing options.

TIP: Lawyers are expected to be objective, or outcome neutral, in their work.  Therefore, no lawyer should ask for a percentage of your business in exchange for doing legal work, as this could potentially create a conflict of interest for the lawyer down the line.

5. Build a working relationship

Once you have selected the perfect lawyer for your small business, build a comfortable working relationship with him or her over time.  You will want to reach out to your lawyer for counsel and guidance on substantive and non-substantive matters alike.  For example, if you would like clarification or help as to a potential course of action you are taking in your business, or if you are unclear about something that appears on your bill, your lawyer will be able to clarify concerns and guide you as you make your way in your business.

With this said, remember that your lawyer’s time is money, so use that time strategically and get right to your point each time.  Unless you want extraordinary legal bills, do not prolong conversations unnecessarily or use your lawyer to find answers to non-legal questions you can find elsewhere.  Overtime, using your lawyer will become second nature to you, and, if you have found the right lawyer, it will be readily apparent just how valuable the relationship is.

*     *     *

If you do not have a lawyer in place, you are opening the door to unnecessary business risk, and precluding yourself from taking your business to the next level.  Said another way, the cost of not hiring a lawyer is too great to push it off any longer.  If you need guidance as to how to find a lawyer, I would be happy to direct you to someone how might be a good fit.  Please do not hesitate to reach out to me at desiree@greenhornbold.com.

Now we want to hear from you!  Leave a comment below and let us know about your experience with using lawyers for your startup.

More Guides You Will Love

6 Reasons Why You Shouldn’t Put a Price Tag on Your Startup Most of the things we shop for these days come with a sticker price. Even things we assume will have some room for negotiation–like cars and houses–usually come with a price tag. And so many entrepreneurs think they should pu...
The 5 Factors that Led Us to Victory at LAUNCH Techweek Chicago A few weeks ago, over 70 pre-qualified startups demoed their products and services for a chance to compete on Techweek’s main stage, for $100,000 is cash and prizes. Our startup, WeDeliver, won! Here are the five factors w...
How To Craft The World’s Greatest Elevator Pitch If there’s one thing I can do better than anyone, it’s sell something. I can sell you anything. In fact, just to prove that I can sell anything, a couple of years ago I got bored and sold empty plastic bags of “fresh Adironda...
Your Startup is Not First to Market. But Who Cares? All entrepreneurs have heard phrases like, “There’s already an app for that,” or, “X company already has first-mover advantage." When I did my first startup, I initially quivered whenever one of these phrases was mentioned, b...
Do You Have Enough Hustle to Build a Successful Startup? The typical digital startup has two founders: one is technical, the other does sales and marketing. Think of Hewlett and Packard of HP, Wozniak and Jobs of Apple, Evans and Maloney of GrubHub. My own company, Orbit Media, has...
Startup Institute: We’re Coming to Chicago! I'm really happy to share that we're building Startup Institute Chicago this Fall. Here's why. It's clear that Chicago is a special place for startups, and we want to make it the place for people to join them. When yo...
The 9 Golden Rules for Dealing With Bad Publicity Sometimes, bad publicity is inevitable. Even when you and your organization behave responsibly, you always run the small risk of an unexpected PR disaster. In the information age, bad publicity can reach the masses before you...
Should a Non-Technical Founder Learn to Code? "Should I teach myself to code today?" I could spend the next 2 years teaching myself a programming language, and I’d still be a more efficient marketer than coder. I know this, and that’s what continues to hold me back fr...
There’s No Such Thing As “Free” Funding for Your Startup Unless you are one of those entrepreneurs who has made a boatload of money for venture investors before, you have probably noticed that raising early stage venture capital is pretty challenging these days.  All the more so if...
Skinny Cows Many businesses want to generate a steady return of profits and keep their costs down.  So how can you become a cash cow while maintaining a lean startup business model? A cash cow is a business venture that generates posi...