Many companies do not work with their lawyer in a very efficient way, and as a result end up spending significantly more money than is necessary for services that are less than optimal. Keep the following in mind to improve your company’s legal services in terms of cost, effectiveness and responsiveness.
Keep your lawyer informed.
Most business lawyers bill by the hour and, as a result, clients try to minimize their contact with them. However, you are far better off in the long run if your lawyer is kept current as to your company’s activities. Discuss how you might set up a regular program to keep your lawyer up to date as part of your team. For example, invite your lawyer to attend your board meetings. Send your lawyer periodic emails with status updates. Meet your lawyer for breakfast or lunch a few times a year; a good lawyer should not charge you for this time and will be glad to have the opportunity to get to know you and your business “off the clock.” But, do bear in mind that a lawyer’s inventory is her time, so don’t abuse the right.
Many lawyers can provide services beyond mere legal advice. For instance, many business lawyers will have a network of contacts in accounting, banking and insurance that you can easily tap into if your lawyer knows what your business needs are. Some corporate lawyers will have ties to the venture capital and angel investor community. Keeping your lawyer informed about your company’s activities, needs and goals can open a lot of doors for you.
Be proactive rather than reactive.
Be proactive with your attorney to help you catch problems before they become too serious. Too often, lawyers find out about a legal issue the company is facing after it’s too late to nip it in the bud easily. Avoid the predicament of clients who say to their lawyer “I signed this agreement. Could you review it and let me know that it’s OK?” By this time, it’s too late and it’s usually not OK. Have your lawyer review any significant agreements before signing them. Don’t try to do your own incorporation without the help of a lawyer. And don’t issue securities without consulting with a lawyer. It will always cost more to fix something after the fact than to do it properly from the start.
Allow your lawyer to prevent fires from starting rather than just putting out the flames after the fact. Make sure you give your lawyer all the facts. You may think you are saving money by keeping the information you share with your attorney down to a bare minimum. But it may not be obvious to you which facts are relevant and which are not, and omitting a key piece of information can lead to inaccurate legal advice. Keeping your lawyer informed before taking action can help prevent you from getting sued, unknowingly giving away rights to your core technology, jeopardizing important employee and customer relationships, and compromising other important aspects of your business.
Sign documents your lawyer sends you and send them back, rather than letting them pile up on your desk. Make sure to send a copy of all executed contracts, minutes and other important documents to your lawyer for her files. Most lawyers bill by the hour regardless of the task, so remember that an hour of time spent by a lawyer trying to track down a missing client document costs the same as an hour of the lawyer’s time in providing substantive legal advice. Try not to make your lawyer do your work for you.
Plan ahead for meetings and phone calls. Send your lawyer an agenda of the topics you want to cover in advance. This will enable your lawyer to do necessary background research or analysis before the meeting rather than after, making the meeting go much more smoothly and getting you answers sooner.
Give advance notice.
Plan ahead to the extent possible when you think you will need legal help down the road. Giving advance notice allows your lawyer the time to assemble the proper team, resulting in lawyers who are at the appropriate skill level (and billing rate) to perform the work required.
Set reasonable deadlines. If you don’t actually need something by tomorrow, don’t make your lawyer jump through hoops to have it done by then. Setting unreasonable deadlines can result in lawyers and staff needing to work overtime, take cabs home and eat dinners at work, all at your expense. Allowing your lawyer to plan his life in advance will result in legal services being rendered more efficiently.
Discuss financial parameters in advance.
Make sure you understand how your lawyer’s fees and billing system work, and who at her firm will be working on your projects. Ask your lawyer for an estimate of the cost of each significant project to be undertaken, and get assurances that you will be consulted well in advance if the project’s costs look like they will exceed that estimate. Ask your lawyer if her firm has special fee arrangements. For instance, some firms will offer special rates or deferred payment plans for start-ups.
Choose the right attorney.
Although your brother-in-law may be the best real estate lawyer in town and may be willing to do the legal work for the sale of your business for next to nothing, he is not the right attorney to choose. Go with a lawyer and law firm that has expertise in the area you need. Before hiring a lawyer, take a close look at his bio as well as the description of his firm on the firm’s web site. Feel free to ask him to describe similar transactions and other clients in similar lines of business (without giving away client confidential information) to assure you of his expertise and that of the firm. A lawyer who has experience and expertise in the area you need will end up being significantly more cost-effective and productive for your business, regardless of his hourly rate.
Give your lawyer feedback.
If there is an associate whose work you are not happy with, let the partner know. If you find the law firm’s invoices confusing, let the firm know. A service-oriented lawyer should solicit this feedback from you on a regular basis. But even if she does not, make your concerns known. You are the consumer, there are a lot of qualified attorneys out there, and your lawyer should care first and foremost about keeping you happy.
If you help your lawyer to provide cost-effective legal services by taking the steps outlined above, she can be a major asset to the health of your business, rather than just a necessary cost.