Businesses are governed by laws and regulations that affect nearly every aspect of their operation. From formation, hiring, and firing, to drafting contracts, resolving disputes, and dissolving or selling the company, there are numerous legal matters that arise during the lifetime of a business.
As a small business owner, you are adept at handling challenges. But when it comes to parsing the fine print of the law, you may feel that you are in over your head. You cannot do everything on your own. Every business relies on other businesses to accomplish its goals. Accordingly, there is arguably no partnership more important to your long-term success than the one you have with your business lawyer.
Finding the right lawyer for your business can seem intimidating if you have never done it before. When preparing to meet with candidates, develop a plan that will allow you to identify an attorney who is a good fit to assist you with your company’s industry, goals, concerns, and culture.
Reasons to Hire a Business Lawyer
Even the most well-oiled business machine needs the counsel of a knowledgeable and skilled lawyer. While not every company requires in-house counsel, having a dedicated business attorney on standby, ready to assist you whenever needed, can help you avoid costly legal missteps that threaten the success—and even the survival—of your business.
A business lawyer can generally provide the following types of services:
- Choosing—and maintaining—a business structure that protects your personal assets
- Drafting and negotiating contracts with clients, customers, employees, and suppliers
- Obtaining licenses and permits
- Securing intellectual property
- Working with your accountant on tax liability issues
- Establishing policies for employees and independent contractors
- Reviewing commercial leases and other real estate deals
- Planning for succession
- Resolving disputes, including lawsuits
- Assisting with mergers and acquisitions
- Aiding in the creation of internal governing documents (e.g., articles, bylaws, and shareholder agreements)
- Advising on securities-related matters
- General business counseling
- Identifying business risks and mitigation strategies
Considerations for Hiring a Business Lawyer
To be clear, not every business attorney is knowledgeable in all of these matters. Business lawyers tend to develop specializations in different fields. In addition, some lawyers are more qualified than others to provide business strategy advice to owners, boards, and executives.
It is important to identify the areas of the law that you anticipate needing help with so you can find an attorney with the right experience. You may want to consider an attorney in a specialized role, such as intellectual property, employment, or contract law, as opposed to a general business lawyer.
You may also need to work with more than one type of business law attorney as your company evolves. The startup phase of a business requires a different legal skill set than what is needed during the growth, maturity, or renewal phases.
Searching for a Business Lawyer
When looking for a business lawyer, you do not necessarily need to find someone local, but there are reasons for doing so. At the very least, the lawyer you choose should be in the state where your business operates because laws applicable to businesses vary from state to state. If you are in a smaller town with limited options, it may be worth looking for lawyers in nearby cities, where there will be more to choose from.
Although we have gotten accustomed to video meetings, you may value the ability to meet in person with your lawyer—especially if you are involved in litigation or other high-stakes matters. However, business owners from Generations Y and Z may be more comfortable with a relationship that is done almost exclusively over Zoom, email, and chat.
Online searches will provide you with leads for attorney candidates. However, if you belong to any professional associations or networking groups, ask for recommendations. Sourcing attorneys from industry connections makes it more likely that candidates will have experience working with businesses like yours. You can also search for attorneys on the state bar website. Many of these sites allow you to search by legal specialty and practice areas. They may even have a lawyer referral service directory.
Questions to Ask Attorneys
If you own a business, there is a good chance you have conducted interviews before. While this may be your first time interviewing a lawyer, you can take the same general approach to find out if the person is a good match. Ask questions with purpose and find out as much information as you can. Prior to meeting with an attorney, you can search for them on the state bar website to learn about any past disciplinary action, but keep in mind that you might have to pay a fee for this information.
You may want to include other key stakeholders in the interview process, such as co-owners, decision makers within the company (such as executives and managers), and advisors. Although they do not all need to be present at the interview, they should at least be consulted because they may offer perspectives that you have not considered.
The following are some relevant topics to discuss with the business lawyer during the interview:
- How long they have been practicing law
- Their areas of legal knowledge
- The relevance of their experience to your business and industry
- Examples of past clients and the types of clients they usually work with
- Their track record of handling past cases (especially cases that overlap with your needs)
- Their fee structure (i.e., flat fee, hourly fee, monthly fees, or retainer fees) and costs of typical transactions
- Whether they prefer to build a relationship as a business partner or work on an ad hoc basis
- If you require a litigation attorney, their willingness to go to trial and their trial record
- If they will personally work on your case or pass the work off to other lawyers in the firm (and if so, who are the other lawyers and what are their credentials)
- Whether there are any potential conflicts of interest (such as representing competitors or former partners)
- Their processes and timelines, including how communications are handled
- Their involvement in associations relative to small businesses, like the local chambers of commerce or a small business advisory board
- Their experience running a business or with entrepreneurship in general
At Protective Law Corporation, our focus is on estate planning for families serious about family protection. For our clients owning businesses, we also provide general business counsel in addition to specialized business counsel related to estate planning, including asset protection and business succession.