But how do you find the right lawyer for the task at hand? How do you know a C+ lawyer from an A+ lawyer, particularly if you have little experience with lawyers or a particular area of law?
Finding the right lawyer for the job has an enormous impact on both the cost and the quality of legal services.
You will have the best experience if you spend some time defining your own needs and expectations. Consider, for instance:
- Do you want a long-term relationship or specialized expertise for a particular project?
- Do you want someone to help shape business practices that your staff can implement (e.g. procurement practices) or do you want litigation counsel?
- Do you need someone who can help you close a deal?
- What is your budget?
- Do you want someone who will help you find resources to handle some tasks on your own?
The more definition you can give your expectations, the more likely you will find precisely what you need.
Different people will have different lists of what is important to them, but they will also have some things in common. We all want a lawyer who knows the law we are hiring them to work with. But I might also care whether my lawyer appreciates the difference between a legal risk and a business risk. Someone else might want a lawyer who is risk adverse to balance a management team that is risk tolerant.
The right lawyer for the task is, first and foremost, a good fit with your business and your industry. Your lawyer is perceived as an extension of your company. When she or he negotiates with your customers, those customers think of you. When she or he speaks with your employees, that lawyer is perceived as the voice of management.
A lawyer who is uncomfortable with computers will not find the computer industry interesting, or computer contracts easy. The effect of a “bad fit” manifests itself in very overt ways (personality based disagreements), and ways that are more subtle (hesitation to call the company lawyer).
Be wary of the lawyer or the firm that claims to be an expert in all things and all industries. No one is. The real question is whether your lawyer is willing and able to identify what she or he doesn’t know, and find the right resources to fill that gap.
The right lawyer for the job has a working style that is complementary to your working style.
Your day-to-day satisfaction with your lawyer depends on how easy it is for you to effectively communicate. The finest legal mind in the country will only be a source of frustration, if the work isn’t done when it needs to be done. If your lawyer sends everything by e-mail, but you don’t check your e-mail, effective communication won’t happen. Likewise, if your company expects 24-hour availability and your lawyer doesn’t answer their mobile phone on Saturday mornings, communication will be difficult for both of you.
The right lawyer takes your budget into account and makes recommendations that are practical for your business to implement.
Some lawyers are more successful at helping large companies, some work more effectively with entrepreneurs. It’s not a question of “better”, but of how well the lawyer understands the practical constraints of the business.
And finally, the bill.
Do you feel comfortable talking to your lawyer about fees? When you pay the bill do you feel you received value for the services rendered? If either answer is “no”, then you may not have the right lawyer. You should understand the why and how of billing for your matter. Lawyers regularly enter into a variety of fee arrangements based on the needs of the client, as well as the amount and complexity of the work. Did you have an hourly fee, and there was a lot of activity that month? Was it a flat fee that you paid up front? Do you know what a trust account is? Do you understand how retainers work?