What You Should Look For In a Lawyer

This space has covered when new companies need a lawyer. The next question is what qualities you want in a lawyer. While different companies’ legal needs vary greatly, there are qualities it seems all organizations– big or small, new or established, public or private– should look for in legal counsel.

Bill Nolan of Barnes & Thornburg LLP

I once read that people choose who to do business with based first on who they like, second on who they trust, and third on who they think knows what they’re doing. While there is no reason not to choose a lawyer you like, it would be foolish to rank that quality ahead of choosing a lawyer you trust.

Trust means more than trusting the lawyer not to falsify bills or other overtly dishonest behavior. I have known very few lawyers I would even remotely suspect of violating a client’s trust to that degree.

Most importantly, you need to trust your lawyer to direct your company to the right weapons for the right battles. One sure sign that you can trust a lawyer is when he or she tells you, “For this matter I am going to put you in touch with another lawyer because that is what will be best for you.” Even for a small company with relatively modest legal needs, it is highly unlikely that a single lawyer can give you the quality of advice you need on your lease, your technology licensing, your employment agreements, and your insurance.

You also need to trust –and allow– your lawyer to tell you when your instincts may be wrong. For example, it is natural and appropriate to want your lawyer to be aggressive in an adversarial legal situation.

“I want a bulldog.” We hear that a lot. That’s great, we can do that. Many of us enjoy it!

But your lawyer also needs to tell you when unfettered aggression is not in your best interest– even if you don’t want to hear it. For example, few (if any) judges are impressed by aggression for its own sake, so there will be situations where your company’s interests will be served by a calmer approach. You need to know that your lawyer has the wisdom and confidence to disagree with you when necessary.

Your lawyer also needs to be willing to talk up front about costs and the likelihood of possible results. You and your lawyer should view legal costs as a necessary –even if not often desired– investment in your business. As with evaluating any investment, you need to know a) how much you will spend and b) the expert’s assessment of the potential outcomes. This is as true for a small startup as it is for a multinational corporation.

Understand that legal costs have several components, so it is a mistake to focus on any one of them. Hourly rates, how long it will take, will you get a discount…these are all just components of the real question that is important to you as a business: How much will it cost? Isn’t that the question you want answered?

Costs may vary depending on factors outside your or your lawyer’s control. That does not mean we cannot estimate costs. It means we should identify where the forks in the road may be and estimate the different cost scenarios depending on what happens at those forks.  If your lawyer has the expertise you should expect, then he or she should be able to evaluate those contingencies.

Additionally, your lawyer needs to get you what you want and need, when you need it. As a client, you are allowed to expect responsiveness. Certainly your lawyer may get tied up– you want a lawyer who is in some demand. But if your lawyer does not have time in most instances to know and meet your deadlines, you may not be as high on the priority list as you should be.

Finally, the lawyer needs to be able to deliver the expertise that you need for the matter at hand. There is no substitute for already knowing most of the answers. This does not mean businesses need to work only with the most senior or “big name” lawyers. There are plenty of matters that are appropriately handled by newer lawyers and/or small firms or solo practitioners. More complex matters may require more seasoned and/or specialized lawyers.

Expertise is the hardest thing for the client to assess. Unless a company is big enough to have an in-house attorney, the client is usually not in a position to determine a lawyer’s expertise.  The best way to test expertise is to go back to the other factors.

A trusted lawyer will is in a position to assess expertise for you and identify what resources you need for what problems. Likewise, if your lawyer can assess costs and options, and is willing to stand behind those estimates, that too is a sign of the requisite expertise. Using these considerations will help your business identify lawyers who will contribute to your success.