Even if you never end up in court, sometimes you have to work with lawyers—if only to get advice on handling business disputes. Follow these four tips to find qualified legal counsel.
Tip #1: Find the right lawyer. Don’t believe everything you see in an ad. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. These resources can help you find a lawyer with the right credentials:
• State bar associations: Your local bar association can help you identify lawyers who specialize in your problem.
• Lawyer referral services: A lawyer referral service will connect you with a lawyer who specializes in your problem for around $30. Some services will allow you to talk with a lawyer for the first half-hour at no charge.
• Recommendation: The most reliable referrals are from people you trust: fellow business owners, friends, family and even lawyers you already know.
Tip #2: Ask the right questions. Even if you have an urgent legal matter, interview a few lawyers before making a decision. It’s important to choose a skilled lawyer with whom you’re comfortable. Ask your potential lawyer when he last handled a similar matter and the outcome of the case. Ask about all your legal options, how long your case might take, and whether a less-experienced lawyer will be handling it. If you don’t understand something, ask for clarification. Never sign anything until you can review it and consider other offers.
Tip #3: Understand all legal costs. Make sure you understand a contract’s payment terms before you sign anything, and set a budget.
• Hourly rates: If you pay by the hour, you agree to pay your lawyer’s bill regardless of the case’s outcome. You also might pay for associated out-of-pocket fees, including postage, photocopies and long-distance calls. Ask your lawyer to keep a detailed record of hours worked on your case. The contract should state your lawyer’s and his employees’ billing rates, and your right to audit records and expenses.
• Contingency fees: A contingency fee arrangement means you do not pay your lawyer unless you win or settle your case. Typically, contingency fees amount to less than 33 percent of an award if a case is settled, and up to 50 percent if a case goes to court. Before you sign the contract, negotiate the fee. Most contingency fee arrangements deduct out-of-pocket costs. Determine if you’ll pay the fee before or after your lawyer’s expenses are deducted, and if you’ll be responsible for those fees if the case is lost.
Tip #4: Control your legal costs. To minimize costs, don’t make unnecessary phone calls to your lawyer. When possible, put your concerns in writing and keep a copy. Require your attorney to receive your authorization for expenses that exceed $200. Ask for copies of all receipts. Meet quarterly with your lawyer to assess the progress of your case compared to your budget.