How to Get the Most Out of Your Attorney
All small-business owners would be well-advised to consult at least somewhat regularly with an attorney. And indeed, sometimes hiring an attorney becomes not just advisable, but absolutely necessary (if, for example, your company gets sued). Either way, it is extremely likely that at some point you, as a business owner, will hire an attorney. Here are some tips you should keep in mind when working with your attorney, in order to make that lawyer-client relationship as effective as possible.
(1) Be organized with your information.
Imagine a hypothetical scenario in which two business owners have the exact same problem: a dispute with a customer over a landscaping job. The first business owner (we’ll call her “Client 1”) sets up a meeting with her attorney to discuss the dispute. In advance of the meeting, Client 1 gives the lawyer a brief overview of the facts of the dispute, and some questions and concerns that Client 1 has about the dispute. Client 1 arrives at the meeting with a neatly organized file of documents. She’s brought copies of all of the documents that the lawyer will want to review: written contracts; e-mails and other written correspondence between Client 1 and her customer; notes on any phone calls between Client 1 and the customer regarding the dispute; and any other documents that may bear on the dispute. Client 1 and her lawyer discuss the dispute in detail during the meeting, the lawyer then reviews the documents after the meeting, and finally the lawyer advises Client 1 on how to proceed.
The second business owner (“Client 2”) handles things differently. He sets up a meeting with his lawyer, but doesn’t describe the purpose of the meeting beforehand. When Client 2 shows up for the meeting with his lawyer, he’s brought some documents, but they are unorganized and perhaps not complete. Client 2 and the lawyer discuss the matter. In the week after the meeting, Client 2 calls the lawyer a number of times, with “just one more thing I forgot to mention” about the dispute. Finally, the lawyer is able to provide his analysis of the situation to Client 2.
We can predict, with almost one-hundred percent certainty, that the advice Client 1 gets from her lawyer will be better, faster, and even cheaper, than the advice that Client 2 gets from his lawyer. Lawyers are paid for their time, but their value actually derives from their legal advice and analysis. The more organized that you are in providing information to your lawyer, the more the lawyer will be spending his or her time (and therefore, your money) on giving that legal analysis, rather than on searching through poorly-organized information.
(2) Have your lawyer prevent problems for you, rather than fix problems for you.
Benjamin Franklin said that “an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Perhaps nowhere is this more true than in the legal context. Legal fees can add up, and there is, of course, a very understandable (and necessary) desire among business owners to keep costs down as much as possible. But when that desire causes you to forgo consulting with an attorney and instead handle a legal issue yourself, the desire to cut costs can be very counter-productive and can result in much greater cost down the line. Take, for example, a business that is planning to terminate a problem employee. The business may consult with an attorney beforehand, and spend money to get that attorney’s advice. Or the business could just proceed with the termination without seeking advice, and perhaps face a wrongful termination lawsuit that could cost tens of thousands of dollars to defend, even though the claims against the company may be groundless. As this example demonstrates, it is typically much more difficult and expensive to fix a legal problem than it is to prevent that same problem.
(3) Give your lawyer the whole story.
It should go without saying that you should be honest with your lawyer. However, it is important not just to give your lawyer accurate information; you should also give your lawyer all of the information you have regarding your matter. A large part of a lawyer’s job is to filter information; to take in large quantities of information, use that information which is pertinent, and to discard that information which is irrelevant. You may not always know what information is pertinent and which is not, but your lawyer likely will. Therefore, if you have any doubt at all as to whether to tell your lawyer a particular detail of your case, you should tell your lawyer that detail! Err on the side of over-informing your lawyer, rather than holding back information.
Hiring lawyers is a necessary and advisable part of conducting a business. But like everything, it can be done well, or it can be done poorly. By following these three tips, you can increase the likelihood that your lawyer will be able to advise you efficiently, cost-effectively, and well.
This article was originally published in the Scoop Magazine from the Minnesota Nursery and Landscape Association.