“When should I hire a lawyer?” I get this question often enough and the simple answer is: before you absolutely need one. As a business owner, you probably already have a long to-do list, but not adding “find a lawyer” to it may come back to bite you later on. If you’re talking to a lawyer for the first time ever after being served with a lawsuit, you’re a bit late. A lawyer can certainly still help you and hiring a lawyer is probably a good idea if you want to increase your chances of prevailing in the lawsuit, but there is a lot a lawyer can do to help you prevent being faced with a lawsuit in the first place.
Like any relationship, you don’t want your first interaction to be one where you are already in crisis mode and are desperate for help. It would serve your business well to establish a good working relationship with a lawyer who you know and trust and who – over the course of your working relationship – gets to know your business and its needs. A business lawyer can serve as a partner to your business to help navigate new issues or see you through challenging circumstances and ultimately help your business succeed. Investing the time to find the right lawyer for your business before you think you need one is the best way to hedge against legal problems that might strike in the future.
So where do you start? In areas like Washington, DC, there are many options such as nonprofit or pro bono referral services, local bar associations, local business chambers, law school clinics, or small business clinics. You can check out more in my previous article, “Resources to Get Your DC Business Started.” As an example, the DC Bar Pro Bono Center holds a FREE monthly small business brief advice clinic where clients can meet one-on-one with a lawyer to discuss their business legal questions. If you’ve never talked to a lawyer before, this is a great way to find out what it’s like to interact with a lawyer. It’s free and brief (as the name suggests) and hopefully you get some of your legal questions answered.
Of course, low cost and brief legal clinics will not meet all of your needs because these programs are not designed to be a full-time legal resource. So how do you find a lawyer who can help with heavier lifting? Think about how you found your accountant or even your doctor. Many times, you find the best service providers via referrals from your own network. If you know other business owners with similar legal concerns, ask them if they know a good lawyer or two that they can introduce you to. It’s then up to you to figure out whether a particular lawyer is a good fit for you and your business. Ask yourself if you think you could have a good working relationship with this person. Ask about their experience with small businesses in your industry, how much they charge, if hourly, and whether they have alternative fee structures (e.g., packages, flat rates), what their billing practices are, how they communicate with clients, whether they will have others associates or staff work on your matters, and any other questions that might be important to you and your business.
The cost of legal services is often cited as a barrier to business owners seeking out a lawyer’s assistance. I’ve mentioned some low cost and free resources above to get you started, but at some point, you will want to find a lawyer who can help you on an ongoing basis. Many lawyers will offer free consultations or consultations at a nominal fee (not their full hourly rate). This is a good way to talk to the lawyer and get a feel for whether they will be a good fit for your business and to get pricing information. Legal rates can vary widely, depending on the lawyer’s experience, the size of the firm, and the geographic location. Some smaller firms may charge rates that are more within reach for your business and might be something you can budget for, once you know how much services would cost. Another important point to consider about perceived cost barriers to legal services is the cost of engaging a lawyer upfront relative to the cost of dealing with a serious legal issue, like a lawsuit. Dealing with a lawsuit will most certainly cost you more, especially if it was an issue that could have easily been prevented with a bit of legal guidance upfront.
Being an informed business owner is important, especially when it comes to legal matters. Doing some research on what legal issues might come up for your business can help arm you with some basic information and questions you might want to ask a lawyer. It can also help save time when you do talk to a lawyer because you will be familiar with some of the legal concepts you discuss. Don’t worry if you are overwhelmed with the sheer amount of information or even confused by seemingly conflicting information you find online, these are things a lawyer can filter out and clear up for you.
Speaking of what you can find online, you will undoubtedly come across the various legal help websites that offer legal services like contract forms, business entity formation, and other business-related legal services. These can be ok, if you know exactly what you need, but they cannot necessarily advise you on what’s appropriate for your specific situation or business. The value of a lawyer is assisting you with figuring out what you need. I can go on about more of the pitfalls of using online legal websites for your business, but that’s not what this article is about. I recognize that they fill a need and are more cost effective than working with a lawyer, but there are limits to how helpful they can be. After all, they don’t spend the time to learn about you, your business, your concerns, or your goals. In the same way a person is unable to rely solely on an online medical website to diagnose, monitor, and treat a health condition, business owners are not able to rely solely on an online legal website to ensure the health of their business – you’ll want the assistance of a trained professional!
Have you added “find a lawyer” to your to-do list yet? Maybe it can be a new year’s resolution? In any event, if you want to talk to a lawyer and, more specifically, this lawyer, you can find me on most Tuesdays at 202Creates, located at 200 I (Eye) Street, SE, Washington, DC (the closest metro station is Navy-Yard Ballpark (green line). There I offer open office hours, where I do initial consultations from 11AM – 3PM at no charge. You can book a time to chat with me in person at this link. Outside of Tuesdays, I offer complimentary 30-minute initial consultations over the phone. Fill out my contact form to get a scheduling link.
 In some cases, you need to meet certain criteria to be eligible for pro bono services, such as having annual income below a certain threshold.