Whether you are a business owner, entrepreneur or business professional, your attorney can be your most powerful asset. A good attorney will fiercely advocate on your behalf, create and implement iron-clad legal agreements, keep you out of trouble, and protect you from liability. However, if you do not properly manage this relationship, you may find yourself becoming frustrated. You may even find yourself thinking that your attorney is unresponsive, inefficient, or wasting time. Couple this with a lengthy invoice for legal services, and you could develop a sour attitude toward your attorney. If you experience this, it’s important that you take the time to review your habits to make sure you are being an effective contributor to the relationship. A few simple tweaks in practice and communication strategy can enhance your relationship, and take it from adequate to indispensable.
It’s amazing how many people will start burning through legal dollars to simply vent about a situation, without any idea of what the actual problem is. Before you pick up the phone, jot down some bullet points on what is bothering you, why it’s bothering you, how it negatively impacts your business or your ability to do business, what your ideal situation looks like, and how soon you need your problem to be resolved. By doing this investigative work yourself ahead of time, you will significantly cut down on the length of time it will take to convey this information to your attorney, and eliminate any frustration with them for not understanding your problem and goals. Once you are ready to communicate, avoid rambling or repeating yourself. If you communicate efficiently, your time and money will be better spent, and you will increase your chances of a quick resolution.
Keep in mind that attorneys are generally not authorities in every area of law. You wouldn’t go to a foot doctor for an ear infection, and you shouldn’t expect your business attorney to be best equipped to handle your grandmother’s estate. If you are unsure of whether your issue is in your attorney’s wheelhouse, you should run it by them and check. Attorneys are masters in skill acquisition, so just because they haven’t done something before doesn’t mean they can’t. If your attorney doesn’t feel comfortable handling your issue, they’ll make a referral for you.
You’re likely familiar with the saying, “You get what you pay for.” In the case of legal professionals, you are paying for what you get, i.e. the lawyer’s time. Spend your money, and time, wisely. You will be paying your attorney the same hourly rate to speak with you, reply to your emails, draft important documents for you, and follow up with you. Here are three easy ways you can prevent yourself from wasting your money paying your attorney to do things you should be doing:
- Send documents and information in an organized fashion. If you forward email chains to your attorney containing attachments and lengthy conversations between you and other parties, remember that you will be paying for them to dig through all of that material, read it, synthesize it, and then ask you what you want them to do with it. (Unless, of course, you are in the middle of a document discovery process, or court-ordered data dump, in which case, fire away!) Take the time to label attachments for ease of identification, and put together a bullet-point list in an email to let your attorney know what you are sending over. Since you are already familiar with the material, the few minutes you will spend organizing it will be far less than what your attorney would spend trying to sift through and make sense of disjointed information.
- Be selective and concise in your communication. This doesn’t mean you should hold back information that would be useful, but rather than simply hitting the “forward” button and sending things off rapid-fire, you should take the time to read the material yourself, and then write one or two sentences about what you are sending, how it relates to your issue, and what you want your attorney to focus on when they read it. This will prepare your attorney to zero in on the important facts and recommend a plan of action for you. Apply the same logic during conversations. Make sure your conversations are productive and focused on exchanging useful information.
- Respond with feedback promptly so your attorney doesn’t need to waste time following up with you. The more follow-up emails, phone calls and correspondence your attorney needs to send, the more expense for you. Your attorney is tasked with moving the needle, and they can’t do that without your input. In addition, there may be important deadlines that must be adhered to. Your failure to provide a response in a timely fashion could result in costly consequences, including additional legal fees, the forfeiture to proceed due to a statutory deadline, or the inability of your attorney to move the matter forward at the last minute due to commitments for other clients. Be proactive and responsive, and make sure your attorney isn’t waiting on you for information.
A good lawyer will ask thoughtful, probing questions, which may unearth additional areas of concern for you or your business. For example, you may call your attorney to discuss one issue, and find at the end of the call that you have identified four additional issues. This may be discouraging, but as the familiar adage goes, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.” Your attorney’s role is to advise you of any legal risks and concerns, legal procedural or timing requirements, and suggest courses of action for you to consider. You can then make an informed decision based on your knowledge of your business and goals, and prioritize which areas are of immediate concern, and which areas can be addressed later. Keep in mind that since you are entrenched in the daily operations of your business, you are privy to information that your attorney isn’t. Your attorney only knows what you share with them.
Once you have agreed on the concerns you want your attorney to focus on, if it seems like your attorney is spending too much time on an issue that is insignificant to you, you need to communicate this. Ask your attorney to explain why they are concentrating on that issue. You may realize that your attorney has a good reason for vetting it out. After all, they are tasked with doing their best to protect you. If, after hearing their reasoning, you disagree, then you can re-direct their energies to something that is of higher priority to you.
Remember that you can start and stop your attorney’s work on any matter, at any time. If you are unsure of the status of a particular task, ask them. If you routinely review your open legal issues with your attorney, you will be able to effectively manage your legal budget at work. A helpful tool is a shared spreadsheet between you and your attorney that summarizes your legal issues. List each legal issue as a separate row, and in the corresponding columns list: the date the issue was initially discussed, the current status of the issue, what document or documents are being prepared and the status of each, the required due date or anticipated completion date, any relevant parties, and other helpful notes. This is especially useful for efficiently reviewing what your attorney is spending time on and making adjustments as necessary.
To maintain a productive working relationship with your attorney, treat them with respect. Your attorney should be a trusted advisor, so consistently ignoring their advice will taint the relationship. If you find yourself doing this often, you should ask yourself why. You may find that you should adjust your attitude to be more open to feedback, or you may realize that you do not have good rapport with your attorney and therefore doubt their advice. It may be helpful to have a conversation with your attorney to get on the same page. If this doesn’t prove to be beneficial, you may need to explore working with a different attorney.
Determine what communication method works best for you. If you are a phone person and this is the most efficient way for you to get your point across, then you should schedule routine phone calls with your attorney. If you find that you can more succinctly summarize your thoughts on paper, then you should consider favoring email correspondence. Tell your attorney what your communication preference is. Ask them how soon you can expect to receive a response to any inquiries you make. By defining your communication preferences up-front, you’ll avoid any perceived lack of communication or responsiveness down the road. If you do not feel that your communication expectations, or service expectations, are being met, you should bring this to your attorney’s attention right away. Your attorney deserves to know if you are dissatisfied and be given an opportunity to remedy the relationship. If they are unable to meet your requirements, they will refer you to a colleague.
Attorneys are selective in the clients they represent. They have chosen to dedicate a portion of their business toward representing you, with the desire for the relationship to be mutually beneficial. If you are courteous, appreciative, and professional, you can expect to receive exemplary service.
Your attorney can, and should, be one of your most valuable business assets! You can rely on them to give you solid legal guidance, make sure you are in compliance with local laws and regulations, draft and review your contracts and other legal documents, shepherd your business transactions, and advocate for your best interests. You should also consider them to be an integral member of your C-suite, and draw upon their strengths as logical problem-solvers and negotiators in both legal and non-legal situations. For example, if you aren’t comfortable with confrontation, tag in your attorney in and let them play “bad cop” for you. If you’re trying to reach an amicable agreement with another party but aren’t sure how to approach the conversation, ask your attorney to mediate.
A good attorney will have an arsenal of abilities outside of the legal arena that can be useful to you. Attorneys have years of training in logical problem-solving, and can help you trouble-shoot obstacles, and create logistical roadmaps. Your attorney should be able to listen to your problems and rather than simply tell you that you can or cannot do something, suggest various approaches for you to consider. You should leverage this skill set and involve your attorney in every aspect of your business. You may be surprised at how effective they are at contributing to your business discussions. For example, if you have a general idea that you want your business to go from “Point A” to “Point B” but aren’t sure how to get there, ask your attorney to chime in. They just might have a brilliant solution.
One of the best kept secrets is that your attorney has forged connections with an expansive network of clients and contacts from a variety of backgrounds and industries in your local community. This is a massive resource that’s only a phone call or email away from you, and you should be taking advantage of it. Whether you’ve hit a bump in the road or aren’t sure which way to turn, reach out to your attorney and ask for help. Chances are, they have worked with a client that has navigated a similar problem, or they know someone who has, and can offer invaluable guidance. You won’t know if you don’t ask!
Andrea A. Tarshus, Esq. began Tarshus Law Firm @Tarshuslaw.com in 2015 to fill a void in the legal ecosystem: efficient, accessible, and fair in-house and General Counsel legal services for business owners. Her engagements regularly include business legal startup paperwork, negotiating and executing contracts, administering internal legal and operational controls, and creating legal documents that protect the company's best interests.
This article is intended to be informational in nature, should not be relied upon by the reader without consultation with an attorney, and does not create an attorney-client relationship between the author and reader.