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How to Pick a Lawyer

Just as we all need a family doctor who we can rely on, every small business eventually finds that it needs a relationship with a lawyer. As with the family doctor, many small business owners find it beneficial to develop rapport with one lawyer as a point of contact. While the relationship attorney may sometimes direct the client to someone with specific experience, it’s reassuring to begin the conversation with someone who understands your business and industry – and remembers the names of your kids. 

I frequently go shopping for other lawyers myself, so I have some experience in this area. In my case, I’m usually looking for a lawyer or firm in another state who can handle a matter for a client. Even as a lawyer, it’s not always easy to judge if another is going to be a good fit, so I understand how business owners may find it difficult to pick an attorney. Here’s my test for picking a lawyer. 

Responsiveness is critical

Some lawyers are not very good at returning phone calls. They’re in court, traveling, tied up in meetings, handling a crisis – there are many understandable reasons. But, as a client, it’s all about you. While it’s unrealistic to expect an instant response, no lawyer is so busy that he or she can’t return your call by the next day. In extreme cases, you should, at least, expect a call from an assistant. Not returning your call also may be a sign of personal disorganization, and that’s never a good thing in a lawyer. 

Do this test for the lawyer you’re thinking about hiring: call and leave a clear message that you’d like to talk about becoming a client. If you don’t receive a call back by the next day, keep looking. 

Shop around

Talk to three or four attorneys before making up your mind about a long-term engagement. This is someone who will be entrusted with business affairs that are essential to your livelihood, and you want to be sure you have a high level of comfort. 

The lawyer shouldn’t mind talking to you for 20 to 30 minutes, either in the office or on the phone. And, as long as you limit the meeting to questions about hiring the firm (and don’t ask for legal advice), there should be no fee for this conversation. 

Also, breaking up is hard to do. Once a law firm becomes enmeshed in your business affairs, it can be messy to move ongoing legal matters to another firm. 

Do you like this person? 

You’re going to be spending time together, and while professionalism and experience come first, it’s not unreasonable to want to work with someone you like. But, be careful here: superficial affinities will quickly fade when you get to know someone. Don’t base your hiring decision solely on a shared outside interest or whether the lawyer went to the same college as you. 

Talk about money 

Law firms have a variety of approaches to billing, so ask how it works. Don’t focus too much on hourly billing rates, but do ask for an estimation of the total cost of a matter or the ongoing cost of a retainer arrangement. While there’s always an element of “it depends,” in answering questions about legal costs, you should receive an answer that gives you a ballpark estimation of expenses. 

Ratings are overrated 

Lawyer website bios often have ratings from various professional groups, as well as awards and peer-recognitions. Don’t place too much stock in ratings, which may primarily reflect our ability to win favor with fellow lawyers in our community. I’ve seen many lawyers whose ratings – or lack thereof – are puzzling in light of their experience. 

Experience is key

Ask about previous experience with the matters you expect to deal with and whether the firm has worked for others in your industry. While the lawyer may not be able to name clients, he or she should be able to describe clients generically, as well as the legal matters handled. 

If you have a competitor, ask if the firm represents that business. Representing your competitor isn’t necessarily a conflict under bar rules – and therefore not something that has to be voluntarily disclosed, but it may make you uncomfortable sharing information with a lawyer who works for a rival.

Also, ask for client references you can call. A law firm will have to get the clients’ permission first, but a successful firm shouldn’t mind giving you the name of a few clients whom you can call for references.

Jeffrey L. Payne is a shareholder in Turner Padget’s Florence, S.C., office. He focuses his practice on commercial litigation, with an emphasis on business torts, construction, commercial collection, eminent domain, foreclosures, banking, and probate disputes. He may be reached at (843) 656-4432 or by email at jpayne@turnerpadget.com.

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