Finding and Selecting a Business Attorney

You are starting a new business or for other reasons you find that you need to find a business attorney. How do you choose a business attorney that will best suit your needs?

Assess your legal needs

No attorney is "right" for every situation. Some businesses require very particular knowledge or experience; some clients may work best with an attorney who has a particular type of personality. Before you start your search for a lawyer for your business, you need to ask yourself what role you wantyour business lawyer to fill.

Business attorneys typically fall into two categories: lawyers who handle disputes are called litigators and those who handle contracts, securities and other business matters are called transactional lawyers. Some attorneys handle both litigation and transactions, but most tend to concentrate in one area or the other. If your business is involved in a lawsuit, look for a business litigator. In other matters, hire a transactional business attorney. The balance of this article will focus on how to find a transactional attorney, though the process for selecting a litigator would be similar.

Is your business highly regulated or does it have very specialized legal needs? If you are starting a company to develop a new drug, setting up a securities broker-dealer, or buying a radio station, you should choose as your legal counsel someone who already understands the regulatory and legal environment in which your business will operate.

Even if your business is more general and less regulated, it is always helpful to find an attorney who has a working knowledge of your type of business. Each industry has its own range of legal issues and customary ways of dealing with them. Whether you are a real estate developer, restaurant owner or a software developer, you will be more satisfied with your choice if you find a business lawyer who already understands your industry.

What role do you see this attorney playing in your business? Are you looking for an attorney for a particular project or someone who can advise you as your business' general counsel on a wide range of issues? If your problem is a one-shot project, you may want an attorney with specialized knowledge in a very narrow area. If you are looking for an attorney to be by your side as your business grows, you will probably want a business lawyer with a wide range of knowledge and skills. You can then rely on him to bring in a lawyer with more specialized expertise when it is needed.

What type of personality do you work with best? Do you prefer a person who is extremely forceful but may sometimes come across as adversarial or even brusque? Do you prefer a person who is less combative and more collegial? If you really want a bulldog but you pick a business lawyer whose nature is to seek a win-win outcome, you may always feel that you are leaving something at the table. If you are the kind of person who wants to get the deal done on a reasonable basis, you may feel that a very aggressive attorney is a "deal killer."

Do you need just one attorney or do your needs require an attorney with the support of a law firm behind him? Consider the overall scope of your needs. For example, if you are a software consultant on your own and expect to have no employees, your only pressing need may be for an attorney with experience in technology law. If that is the case, you might be well served to look at business attorneys who practice by themselves or in very small firms. They will not offer the support in other practice areas that you might find at a larger firm, but their fees are often lower.

On the other hand, if you have a wider range of legal needs, you may be better off with an attorney who is part of a firm that has sufficient depth to handle most or all of your matters. A solo lawyer may be tempted to take on work beyond his own current expertise and you may end up paying for his learning time. If many of your needs can not be met by the attorney with a solo practice, you may need to spread your work among a number of other attorneys and no one of them will ever develop a feel for your business that will allow them to become a trusted advisor.

Find a business attorney

Once you have assessed your needs, develop a list of attorneys who have the potential to meet your needs. There are several ways to find your potential business attorney.

Personal knowledge. Perhaps you know attorneys personally - a college classmate, a neighbor, a parent met through your son or daughter's activities, a member or your church or synagogue. Starting with someone you know, if they meet your pre-assessed needs, is an excellent first step.

Referrals. Ask for referrals from people you know. A person who is already engaged in the business you are entering is often a good source of information. If you are starting a restaurant, ask another restaurant owner who his attorney is and how he likes his work. Your accountant or banker are other good choices for referrals.

Bar associations. Most bar associations have a lawyer referral service. They can provide you with the names of attorneys who are seeking clients in your area. A drawback with a lawyer referral service is that it is usually only a self-selected subset of all attorneys, so the many quality attorneys that do not participate in the service are not on their list.

Directories. There are many directories of attorneys, both in print and online. Some are quite comprehensive, listing virtually all attorneys. Others are simply lists of attorneys who have paid to be listed. Directories that list practice areas can at least point you in the direction of attorneys who claim to have the background you seek. Be aware, however, that many states do not recognize "specialists" in areas other than a few narrow areas (such as patent law). A listing may mean nothing more than the attorney is seeking clients in a particular practice area.

Internet searches. With the advent of search engines such as Google and Yahoo!, it is easier than ever to locate attorneys with the experience and background that meet your basic criteria. Simply do a few searches on the terms that best describe the needs that you have identified.

No single source is best. While your personal knowledge of an attorney may make you very comfortable with his knowledge and style, there may be a lawyer you don't know who is an even better match for you. Using more than one method to obtain names of potential attorneys for your business is usually a good idea.

Do your homework

Now it is time to do your homework. With preparation, you can ask the right questions when you interview the attorneys on your list. Your research should also narrow your list to two or three attorneys.

Review the firm's web site. Almost every law firm has a web site. Visit the web site of each attorney on your list. Read about the attorney and his practice, but also read about the firm and some of the other attorneys in the firm who practice in the same or complementary areas. Do their backgrounds and skills seem appropriate for your needs?

Search the Internet. Use search engines to find additional information about the attorney or the firm. Has the attorney written articles or presented seminars in his field? Has he been quoted in relevant articles in the business press? Is he on corporate or charity boards? All of that can help you draw a more complete picture of the attorney.

Check for disciplinary complaints. Check with the body that regulates lawyers in your state to see if any complaints have been filed against the attorney. While most complaints are dismissed as being without merit, a complaint is at least something that you should discuss when you interview the attorney.

Check the list with other people. Ask people you know for their opinion on the attorneys on your list. In a large metropolitan area, many of the names will be unfamiliar even to other lawyers, but in a smaller market the reputations of the attorneys on the list may be more broadly known.

Spend a little time up front and save yourself time and headaches later.

Interview your business attorney

The final step in choosing a business attorney is the personal interview. Schedule a meeting with the attorneys on your short list. While the meeting can be conducted by telephone, it is difficult to assess personality without a face to face meeting. If you are seeking to hire a business attorney for a long term relationship, a meeting in person is essential.

While each interview is different, here are some basic questions that will apply in most cases:

    1. What similar businesses has the attorney represented?
    2. What similar matters has the attorney handled?
    3. How long has the attorney been practicing law?
    4. What is the hourly rate of the people who will work on your matter?
    5. Are paralegals or associates available to handle routine matters at lower rates?
    6. Does the attorney handle certain matters for a fixed fee?
    7. What is the estimated fee? (This assumes you have a particular project in mind)
    8. Have any disciplinary complaints been filed against the lawyer? What was the outcome?
    9. Does the attorney get referrals from his peers in the practice areas you are concerned with? (This validates that he/she is recognized as proficient by people who should know)
    10. Has the attorney written articles or presented seminars to other professionals? (Again, this validates the attorney's claim of proficiency in an area of practice)
    11. Has the attorney received any professional honors or recognition?
    12. How will the attorney handle matters that are outside his areas of strength? Are there other attorneys in the firm with the skills you will need? Will he assist you in finding a lawyer outside his firm?
    13. What is the attorney's availability? Will he or she have the time to provide the services you need in a timely manner?

If you have a specific matter in mind, ask the attorney how he would handle it. For example, if you are buying a business, ask him or her to describe how they would handle the preliminary negotiations, due diligence, and negotiating and drafting the final agreements.

Do not expect to use an initial interview to have the business attorney answer your legal questions. Legal advice should come only after you have made a decision to hire the law firm and you have signed a retainer agreement detailing the specifics of the engagement.


Laying the proper groundwork and asking the proper questions can help you find a business attorney who will work with you to fill your legal needs for many years to come!


Contact David Staub:

David K. Staub
Staub Anderson LLC
55 West Monroe Street
Suite 1925
Chicago, Illinois 60603

312.345.0545 phone
312.345.0544 fax


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