Editor's note: Since 1964, business-management counselors at nonprofit organization Score have given free advice to small-business clients spanning every industry. They currently serve nearly 400,000 entrepreneurs nationwide each year -- check in every week for their prudent guidance.
When's the last time you Googled someone before you went on a date? While everyone claims superiority to the practice, most of us are guilty. But we shouldn't be -- why not check someone out beforehand instead of going on a potentially disastrous date with a thrice-divorced "self-employed" poet?
Small-business owners would do well to treat their attorney hunt similarly. New to the business world, many first-time entrepreneurs use any attorney they know through friends or acquaintances, regardless of their industry. Others find someone online that they believe will fit their needs, without doing the required snooping.
The counselors at
Score NYC know about the lawyer game. They also know that choosing an attorney to best fit your business needs should be like entering a healthy relationship. To lessen the chances of disastrous blind dates, Score sends its clients to a service that specializes in legal matchmaking: the
New York City Bar Association's legal referral service, sponsored by the New York City Bar and the
New York County Lawyers' Association. Unlike online-only services, it has 12 lawyers on staff, fielding between 500 and 700 calls a day from individuals and businesses of all sizes.
Bar association referral services do differ across the country; go to the American Bar Association's Web site for a list of
referral services by state.
Don't Be Friends First
One of the most common errors entrepreneurs make is hiring a friend, a relative or someone's son or daughter who just graduated from law school, rather than doing further research and finding a lawyer well-suited to their needs, says Allen Charne, executive director of New York City and County's legal referral service.
A referral service can be your best friend. The staff of the New York legal referral service prescreens the nature of your legal needs, even if you have no idea how to proceed, and matches you up with the appropriate attorney.
"We try to refer clients to a lawyer with experience in their particular industry," says Charne.
Finding a lawyer in your industry becomes increasingly important the less you know about your industry, he says. Yet even an established family business that is opting for a contract with an outside vendor, for example, should look for someone well versed in liability and financing issues.
Like a good relationship, communication is key no matter who you choose.
"We used to call lawyers wordsmiths," says Charne. "You want to know the lawyer is willing to speak in a language you understand."
Also, says Charne, don't be afraid to ask if your lawyer is insured. You're not being insensitive, just cautious. "Insurance shows that they are someone who protects their business just like you want to protect yours," he says.
You'd Better Shop Around
The $250 to $650 an hour that some attorneys charge for an initial consultation isn't just a drop in the bucket for the limited budgets of most small businesses. Referral services, however, make it much more feasible for the small business owner to shop around. The New York Bar's referral service is free, and the first half-hour meeting with any of their attorneys is only $35. Most State Bar referral services follow the reduced half-hour consultation model.
Once you select an attorney, says Charne, make sure you know exactly what services he or she will be charging for after the initial consultation. A lawyer who tells you to write your concerns down and call once to address them all will be more financially beneficial and honest than one who encourages you to call every time you have a small concern, he says.
Also, define what results, both positive and negative, can be expected from the services you will be paying for, says James Siegel, attorney and member of the New York Bar's legal referral service.
Frequently, says Siegel, attorneys who have been in practice for many years command a higher hourly rate, but that doesn't mean you have to empty your pockets for a good one. Some younger attorneys with lower rates have a wide range of experience and may even be more appropriate to your needs, depending on the scope and magnitude of the cases they've handled.
The small business owner "needs rapport" with his or her attorney, "not necessarily the best one in the world," says Score counselor Herb Winkler.
Some of Siegel's clients find him through the legal referral service, but most come to him by word of mouth or Internet searches. No matter what mode you use to find an attorney, he says, have some preliminary knowledge of the kind of advice you need and then narrow down your search.
Outside referral services, Siegel recommends the online searches at
Lawyers.com, which allow you to determine the credentials of an attorney before you call for an appointment. It's important to know what areas they have been practicing in and any limitations on their practice to certain courts, he says.
Your business may also benefit from services such as
Pre-Paid Legal Services
, which provides legal expense plans, similar to medical reimbursement plans, for businesses that pay a membership fee of around $26 per month. Siegel says he has seen some clients benefit from similar plans through unions.
Because Breaking Up Is Hard to Do
As with dating, many business owners are afraid to dump their lawyers or even to communicate when they have a concern, says Charne. When small-business owners use a middleman such as a referral service, though, they call the service first if an issue arises, eliminating the need for direct confrontation.
In addition, referral services lessen the chance of a problem in the first place. The average time in practice of the NYC Bar's referral service's ABA-approved lawyers is 18 years, and its attorneys are checked for complaints filed against them.
Thanks to the resources out there, you don't have to be a naif to the attorney scene. If only the search for my next date could be as comprehensive.