There are two professionals all business will need early on: an accountant and a lawyer. The reasons for hiring an accountant are pretty obvious–you require someone to help you setup your “chart of accounts,” review your numbers periodically, and prepare all of your essential federal, state and local tax returns. The reason for hiring a business attorney might not, however, be so apparent. A good business attorney will provide vital assistance in almost every feature of your business, from basic zoning compliance and copyright and trademark advice to formal industry incorporation and lawsuits and liability. First, some general rules about dealing with lawyers:
- If you are being sued, it’s too late.Most little businesses put off hiring a lawyer until the sheriff is standing at the door helping them with a summons. Bad fault. The time to hook up with a good business lawyer is before you are sued. Once you have been served with a summons and objection, it’s too late–the problem has already occurred, and it’s just a question of how much you will have to give (in court costs, attorney’s fees, settlements and other expenses) to get the difficulty resolved.
America’s judicial system is a lot like a Roach Motel–it’s easy to get into court, but extremely difficult to get out once you’ve been trapped. Mainly lawyers agree that while nobody likes to pay attorneys’ costs for anything (heck, let’s let our hair down–nobody likes paying or dealing with lawyers, period), but the fee a lawyer will charge to keep you out of trouble is just a small fraction of the fee a lawyer will charge to get you out of problem once it’s happened.
- Big firm or little firm?Generally speaking, the larger the law firm, the greater the overhead, therefore the superior the hourly rates you will be expected to pay. Still, larger firms have a number of advantages over lesser ones. Over the past 20 years, lawyers have become incredibly specialized. If you use a solo practitioner or small firm as your attorney(s), it’s likely that they will not have all the skills you may need to develop your business. I don’t know of some solo practitioner, and very few small firms (under 10 lawyers) that could handle your lawsuits, discuss your lease of office or retail space, file a patent or trademark, draft a software license conformity, counsel you on terminating a disruptive employee, and oversee your corporate annual meeting.
While larger firms are more expensive to deal with, they have two important advantages: 1) they usually have all the legal skills you require under one roof, and 2) they have a lot of clout in the restricted, regional and (perhaps) national legal community. A nasty letter from a powerhouse law firm through offices in 30 states is a lot more intimidating than a nasty letter from a singly practitioner who is not admitted to practice in the defendant’s state.