Most business owners would be happy if they didn’t have to deal with a lawyer. Lawyers are expensive. They seem to revel in talking about the risks and downsides of everything, while ignoring the upside. They make everything more complicated. And they often resist giving you a straight answer to a simple question. With lawyers, there is always an “other hand.”
Wouldn’t it be great if you could gain the upper hand, and take advantage of your lawyer? Well I’m going to break the code of silence and give you five easy tips to help you do that.
1. Understand that it’s a buyer’s market.
The legal industry is undergoing a historic change. Large firms are failing; mid-size firms are consolidating or shrinking. Thousands of lawyers are graduating law school without any job prospects. Clients in general are becoming far more cost-conscious and demanding that lawyers agree to work on terms that make sense for them. What that means is that you have more leverage than you did a few years ago. Of course (there’s that “other hand!”), if your main priority is low price, you can expect to get what you pay for. But if you are looking for quality representation, you likely can get it at a more reasonable price if you are willing to shop around and negotiate.
2. Pick a lawyer who fits your style.
There are all kinds of lawyers: technicians, detail guys, deal-makers, hired guns, and connectors, to name a few. Whether you run your business by gut instinct or by slavish attention to detail, there is a lawyer who will be on your wavelength. You want someone who speaks your language, and who understands what you consider important, because you need to understand and follow his or her advice.
3. Remember that every legal issue is a business issue.
Lawyers can advise, draft, negotiate and litigate. But decisions whether to do a deal (and on what terms); whether to insist on certain rights or protections in a transaction; whether to sue; and whether to settle (and for how much) belong to you. Your lawyer should be able give you his advice on the pros and cons of any particular action. That advice will be more valuable if you make sure he or she understands your goals. Do you need to keep doing business with that supplier you’re fighting with, or can you burn that bridge? Do you need to resolve a dispute or close a deal quickly to clear the decks for a significant transaction? The answers to questions like these will impact what your lawyer does. So, be clear about what you want and need and about what you believe is really important.
4. Learn to love the boilerplate.
The boilerplate shows up at the end of every contract, and on most invoices. Very few people other than lawyers actually read it. But understand that almost every piece of boilerplate had its beginning in a costly lawsuit. That suit could have been avoided by a simple agreement on something that could have been easily clarified at the beginning. If you routinely engage in a volume of similar transactions, spend some time with your lawyer writing down the terms you never want to spend time negotiating, but that will protect you if a transaction craters.
5. Don’t ignore the warnings.
Sometimes a lawyer can seem like one of those warning labels on every appliance you buy, telling you everything you shouldn’t do before talking about what you can do. Understand that one of your lawyer’s primary jobs is to make you aware of, and protect you against, downside risk. Lawyers can tell you what might go wrong (because they know what has gone wrong in other similar deals), and how you can avoid or minimize the risk. You then get to decide whether the cost of the protection is worth it.
OK, so maybe I didn’t disclose many trade secrets that help you put one over on your lawyer. But hopefully these tips will allow you to get the most value out of your lawyer. Look for a lawyer who has the experience and style you need and want, and don’t be afraid to negotiate a fee. Exercise business control over the engagement. Use your lawyer proactively to help standardize routine transactions. And don’t forget that sometimes a little effort now can avoid major legal problems later.