As an entrepreneur, you’ll probably need legal advice at some point. But any given legal project should make your business better—whether that means minimizing the risk of future conflicts, saving you time and effort, developing the business strategy, or even improving the image and reputation of the business—not just increase your business expenses. How do you get the advice and representation you need without breaking the bank?
1. Prevention is the cheapest medicine. By getting legal advice up-front, you can avoid many more problems down the road. For example, it’s much cheaper to have a lawyer draft an airtight contract than it is to have a lawyer negotiate your way out of a disputed “handshake” agreement.
2. Go with your gut. It’s not about finding the oldest, most experienced attorney with the fanciest offices. (After all, you’re paying for that overhead.) Instead, hire the attorney that you really “click” with. The relationship between you and your attorney should be one of collaboration. Are they willing to take the time to learn about your business and how to best serve you? Do you trust them? Were they referred to you by someone you trust? Most importantly, follow your instincts. If you hate working with your attorney, or if you doubt their advice or their value, then you’ll probably just end up looking for a different attorney in the long run. And since most attorneys get paid up front and don’t give refunds or hold on to your file until the bill is paid, switching to a new attorney will be more expensive than hiring the right one for you in the first place.
3. Ditch the billable hour. If you Google “how to save on legal fees,” you’ll find all kinds of tips related to negotiating cheaper hourly rates, not paying for paralegal time, demanding a budget up front, etc. Save yourself the headache and demand a flat fee. That way, you don’t have to worry about being nickeled and dimed every time you have a follow-up question.
4. You might be able to do it yourself and use a lawyer as a coach. Small businesses, especially start-up companies, are often on a shoestring budget. And there are quite a few consultants, service providers, and, (frankly) sharks that want a piece of your business’s budget. So there’s nothing wrong with doing some of the work yourself and having your attorney guide you along. For example, if you use a legal document you found or purchased online, you should develop a relationship with an attorney to make sure that what is likely a very generic document is fine-tuned for your particular situation. Or as your business grows, make some room in the budget to get your legal documents updated. A cookie-cutter contract might work in the early stages, but as your business grows and becomes more complex, you want to make sure the language fits and the terms are appropriate for your unique situation.
5. Educate yourself. We live in the information age—some might even say the information overload age. There’s nothing wrong with doing a little research about your legal question before meeting with an attorney. But just like WebMD is no substitute for actually seeing your doctor, Google is no substitute for actually consulting with an attorney. Take advantage of a free consultation. With so many gray areas in the law, and so many exceptions to the general rule, you’ll be surprised at what you can easily miss with a Google search.
6. Be honest with your attorney. Attorney-client privilege exists for a reason. Take advantage of it no matter how bad the facts may seem. This is true not only in litigation, but also for general business counsel. Your attorney needs to know as much as possible about your business in order to provide good advice. Without all the facts, you’re back to relying on whatever you could dig up on Google. All too often, the “little” thing you held back becomes a make or break issue.
7. If all else fails, negotiate payment terms. Let’s face it—sometimes, you get what you pay for. If you’re getting great value from your attorney, don’t be “that guy” trying to get a steak and lobster dinner for a fast food price. Instead, recognize that value, but work with your attorney to develop payment terms that fit your budget. A long-term relationship can be infinitely more valuable to you and your attorney than a one-time legal matter.