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5 Questions to Ask a Prospective Attorney for Your Business 

Did you hear the one that says changing lawyers is like changing deck chairs on Titanic? 

Yeah, the attorney-client relationship shouldn’t be like that.  

You’ve decided that you need to retain an attorney for your business. But how do you hire one?  

You need to consider two main factors in hiring an attorney: experience in the area of law you need and “fit.” Not all lawyers are created equal. Not all lawyers practice all kinds of law. If you have a business dispute, you need a business lawyer, not a divorce lawyer. Most lawyers confine their practice to a specific niche in the law. Before you hire an attorney make sure they practice the type of law you need. While general practitioners, lawyers whose practices cover many areas of the law, still exist, they are becoming a dying breed. Like every other business, lawyers are specializing.  

If you don’t know any lawyers, ask other business owners you work with about their legal counsel. If they won’t tell or don’t have a regular lawyer, there are resources for finding a lawyer. Whether you find your perspective counsel from a referral, networking or an Internet search, interview her just as you would an employee. Besides general competence, you need to ensure the attorney’s personality and case approach is a “fit” with yours. Ideally, you hire a lawyer who is as aggressive or conservative in his work as you are in your approach to life.  

I’ve turned down potential clients or fired existing clients when they wanted me to take a position that didn’t mesh with my beliefs or ethics. For example, a prospective client wanted an attorney who would fight every request from the other side no matter how reasonable the request was. The prospective client had a losing case and didn’t want to settle. He just wanted to cost the other side as much as possible along the way. This isn’t how I litigate.  

I firmly believe that all cases can be resolved short of trial if all parties (and their attorneys) act like reasonable business people. Sadly, this doesn’t always happen, but most cases do settle. When a client has a losing case, I will advocate strongly that they try to resolve the matter rather than incur the expense of litigation. If you want a scorched-earth attorney you need to hire one; otherwise, both you and your attorney will be unhappy working together. Remember, your lawyer will be with you during some of the best and worst times in your life, and you should feel comfortable talking to them.  

A lawyer should not get offended when you ask about his experience or how he’s handled similar issues for other clients. There’re questions you can and should ask any lawyer before you decide whom to hire. Just remember, the interview isn’t the time to fish for free legal advise, but to determine if the lawyer has the qualifications you need and is a good fit. 

Running a business involves navigating legal landmines. Unless you majored in law (and if you did, kudos to you), you are going to need an experienced attorney to guide you. But how do you find the right one? The answer is simpler than you think: you ask questions—good ones. What kind of questions? We are glad you asked. The interview questions fall into four general categories: experience; fees; case management and case evaluation, and will point you in the right direction.  

Question 1: What Type of Experience Do You Have Working with Businesses 

When choosing a legal partner for your venture, it is important to ensure they have significant business law experience. Ideally, you want an attorney with at least 10 years’ experience in the field you need.  An attorney with 10 years’ experience has seen enough to give you advise based on what they have used with actual clients.  Attorneys with lesser experience are often learning as they go.  There’s a reason it’s called the “practice” of law. Ask your prospective attorney about their level of experience with businesses of your size.  

Some sample questions are: 

  1. How long have you been in practice? 

  2. In which jurisdictions or states or courts? 

-. Have you appeared in the court where the case is being heard? 

  1. Have you handled this type of case or issue?

– What percent of your case load is made up of similar matters?  

– Are there any issues in this case that you haven’t handled? 

– Who is your typical client? 

  1. Describe your experience in handling cases like mine.

– How much of that experience was in the last two years?  

– What were the outcomes? 

– What percent of your cases settled and what percent have gone to trial? 

– What percent of trials in those cases have you won? 

Okay, I don’t keep tabs on my win record. So, don’t be surprised if the lawyer you’re talking to doesn’t know the exact number. Also remember that past results do not predict future success. Every case is unique and the result will depend on many factors. 

  1. What’s your current caseload? 

– Do you have large trials scheduled over the next few months?  

– How many active cases and clients do you work with at one time? 

If your matter is urgent and time consuming hiring a lawyer who is about to start a three-week trial is not likely to be the right choice.  

  1. Do you have malpractice insurance?

If the lawyer says “no,” run away. We’re required to have malpractice insurance. Not having coverage or refusing to answer this question is a warning sign.   

  1. Are you certified by any organization as a specialist or expert in this area? 

Most bar associations, which are the administrative agencies that license and supervise attorney conduct, prohibit a lawyer from claiming to be an “expert” or “specialist” unless a recognized third-party organization has certified them. There aren’t many organizations who certify lawyers. As a result, don’t be surprised if your lawyer doesn’t have any certifications beyond his law degree.  

  1. Have you ever been sanctioned for misconduct?

If the answer is “yes”, ask questions until you drill down to the basis for the misconduct claim and the resulting disciplinary action.  

  1. Can you provide references from other clients?

This is a tricky question for lawyers. We must keep our clients’ confidences and secrets. This includes not disclosing who they are. Asking clients for references is a relatively new trend, and not all attorneys are comfortable asking clients for references.  

Once you’ve decided to hire the attorney, or are close to that decision, it’s important to ask her how she views your matter. 

Why ask this?

While the field of law is broad and diverse, not all attorneys are created equal when it comes to business expertise. You do not want an attorney who has been perfecting their skills in family law for the past decade drafting contracts for your restaurant. You also wouldn’t want a business attorney defending you in a criminal case. Make sure the lawyer you are hiring actually practices the type of law you are hiring them for.  

The arena of business law has its own rules, norms, and nuances. You need an attorney who knows this landscape like the back of their hand. It is a bit like needing a pilot for your plane, not a ship captain. By asking this question, you ensure that you are getting a legal professional who is experienced in navigating the corporate jungle, not someone who is just stepped out of a courtroom drama. 

Why ask this?

In short, you want your business attorney to understand your business as well as you do. It helps them anticipate potential legal issues and advise you better. 

Interested in our services?

If you would like assistance with this or any other compliance matter, please contact Nancy at N D Greene PC by clicking on schedule an appointment.


Question 2: How Do Clients Contact You? 

Communication is key when it comes to handling legal matters, therefore do not shy away from asking your prospective attorney: “How can I contact you when I need to? Can I call you directly in an emergency, or do I have to work my way up in an automated menu to reach you? What happens if there is a legal emergency after hours?” 

More legal malpractice claims arise out of an attorney’s failure to timely respond to client inquiries than on any other basis. It’s important to know the lawyer’s policies on communication and other timeliness issues before you hire him. 

Why ask this?

Ever tried reaching tech support and found yourself stuck in a never-ending cycle of automated responses? Frustrating, right? Now imagine needing legal advice urgently and not being able to reach your attorney. This question helps you gauge the accessibility of your attorney. 

Just as you would not want to navigate a maze to reach your life raft, you do not want to jump through hoops to reach your legal advisor in an emergency. Knowing your attorney’s availability and communication methods not only aids in smoother interactions but also provides peace of mind. 

Some questions to ask:  

  1. How long will the matter take? 

Clients almost always underestimate how long a matter will take to resolve. Litigation can take years, even decades. Even something as apparently simple as writing up a contract might take weeks depending on the number of revisions the document goes through. Getting a reasonable estimate of the time your matter may take to resolve will prevent later frustration on all sides.  

  1. How will we communicate? 

I ask clients this question. When I started practicing law there were only three commonly used options for communications: phone, in person and this new-fangled thingy called a facsimile or fax. Now we have more choices. Most clients prefer emails over calls since emails are theoretically less disruptive to one’s day. Now, most clients prefer Zoom or other online meetings to in-person ones. Find out your lawyer’s preferred method of communication and let her know yours.  

Also, find out how quickly the lawyer will respond to a communication. Most strive to respond within twenty-four hours. But remember, the lawyer won’t always make the twenty-four-hour turnaround. If your lawyer also handles litigation matters, trial and court schedules may also delay this turnaround time.  

  1. What is your availability outside normal business hours? 

Sadly, legal issues don’t politely wait until the business day starts to arise. Being able to reach your chosen legal professional when an issue arises is important. While your response may wait until the next business day, sometimes being able to respond before then makes a world of difference.  

  1. Who will handle my matter? 

Law firms have many attorneys, from partners to associates. Most firms will assign your matter to an associate with partner supervision. Sometimes, working only with the partner is important or advantageous, but not always. Also, having an associate work on the matter will lower your legal fees.  

  1. What would my responsibilities be?

          Are there things I can do to improve my situation?  

  1. Are there deadlines I should know about?

If your matter is a litigation one, there will be strict deadlines that have to be met. Make sure you understand them because missing them can have serious repercussions.  

  1. Will I get copies of all letters, emails, faxes, legal papers and other documents in my case?

You should. If the lawyer says no, he’s waving a red flag at you. Run away. 

  1. If you do not have the expertise to handle my case on your own, do you work with other lawyers? 

– Under what circumstances would you allow them to take over the case?  

– In what circumstances would you refer me to someone else?  

  1. How do you resolve complaints? 

– How do I end this relationship if I’m dissatisfied?  

– Have you ever fired a client? Why? 

Question 3: What are Your Fees and How are They Structured? 

We get it; this question feels as comfortable as asking someone their age at a birthday party. But understanding the financial aspect of the relationship is critical. There are multiple financial options for working with an attorney. These are: pro bono, contingent fees, hourly billing, project or flat fee, blended rates and retainer.   

A lawyer represents a client on a pro bono basis when he takes the case on without compensation for his time or solely in anticipation of a later legal fees award. The client always remains responsible for costs of the representation. Very few cases are accepted on this basis. Some legal aid societies will assist indigent individuals on a pro bono basis for certain types of cases. Sometimes a larger firm also have pro bono sections.  

A contingent fee, when a lawyer agrees to take a percent of a final award if you win and only costs if you don’t, is another example of the lawyer accepting the risk of litigation along with his client. Personal injury claims in which an insurance company is involved are often good prospects for a contingency fee. What motivates an attorney to take these matters is the likelihood of being able to collect the judgement or settlement at the end.  

Most lawyers bill on an hourly basis. In this arrangement, the lawyer has a set hourly rate, and the client is billed for the actual hours worked using tenth-of-an-hour increments. Paralegals, associates and partners all bill at different hourly rates based on their years of experience.  

An alternative to hourly billing is a flat fee or project rate. The lawyer charges a set price for a specific product or task. Discrete issues such as creating employee handbooks, contracts or the like often work well with this type of arrangement.  

Sometimes an attorney will take a litigation matter on blended rate, meaning he accepts a lower hourly rate than normal but receives either a percent of the recovery or an enhanced rate upon success.  

For example, an attorney normally charges $425 per hour. A potential client asks the attorney to take a case where liability is likely (the defendant probably did something wrong), but it’s unclear if the defendant has the money to pay a judgment.   Lawyer and client may agree to a blended rate arrangement by which the attorney gets paid $225.00 per hour as the case progresses and a “success fee” of an additional $300.00 per hour. If they win and collect on the judgment the attorney’s effective hourly rate will be $525.00 rather than her usual $425.00. But if they lose the case, or win but can’t collect the money, the attorney still gets $225.00 per hour. The higher “success rate” compensates the attorney for the risk and delay in payment. The client benefits because he gets a significantly reduced fee if he doesn’t win.  

Most people, including lawyers, misuse the term “retainer.” Often retainer is misused to mean “legal fee deposit.” However, a true retainer is a monthly or annual fee to keep an attorney available for your matters. If you have a lot of legal issues or are an operating business that regularly uses legal service, then a true retainer arrangement might work for you. 

Why ask this?

Because surprises are great for birthdays, not so much for invoices. Understanding the fee structure helps you budget for legal expenses and avoid any awkward “I thought this was included” moments. 

Questions to ask include:  

  1. Is there a fee for the first consultation, and, if so, how much is it?

  2. How many hours do you think my case will take/ How much do you estimate the matter will cost me? 

  3. Do you have a minimum unit of time you bill?

Most lawyers bill in tenth-of-an-hour increments but sometimes they have minimum charges for phone calls or emails. Check to see if the firm has a policy on this issue.  

  1. Will our fee agreement be in writing?

This answer should be “yes.” Some bar associations require written fee agreements, but not all of them. Even when a written agreement isn’t required, you still want the contract in writing to ensure there are no later misunderstandings.  

  1. Are expenses extra, and, if so, what expenses do you anticipate?

Expenses, or costs, are almost always extra. What the lawyer considers a cost that should be passed on to the client may vary. As an example, my first firm charged a dollar per page for a fax, whether incoming or outgoing. My current firm does not.  

  1. How can I reduce the costs?

  2. Do I have to pay a deposit?  

– if so, how much?  

– how will you bill against the deposit?  

– what happens when the deposit is used up?  

  1. How often will I be billed? 

Most of the time you will be billed monthly; some bar associations require monthly billing. However, if yours is a contingent fee matter, you might not be billed every month. 

  1. What happens if I get behind on payments?

Generally, a lawyer has the right, after notice to you, to quit if you don’t pay your legal bills in a timely manner. If there is litigation, a lawyer must also ask the court’s permission to quit. On some fairly rare occasions, a court may not let your lawyer quit because letting him do so would be unfairly prejudicial to you, such as when trial is coming soon and you don’t have enough time to get another attorney. In trial the potential harm to the client of the attorney quitting may outweigh the lawyer’s financial hardship of staying in the case.  

Interested in our services?

If you would like assistance with this or any other compliance matter, please contact Nancy at N D Greene PC by clicking on schedule an appointment.


Question 4: Who Will be Handling My Business? 

Will the attorney you are interviewing be handling your case, or will it be delegated to a junior attorney or paralegal? I touched on this a bit already, but if you are hiring a larger firm, the partner you meet with may not be the person who handles your matter on a day-to-day basis.  

Why ask this?

While delegation is a sign of efficiency, you want to know who is at the helm of your legal ship. Understanding who will handle your business gives you a clear picture of the legal team that will be involved with your case. If your prospective attorney plans to delegate some tasks, you can also assess the qualifications and experience of the other team members. This way, you ensure that every person who works in your business is competent and capable.  

It is the client’s right, within some limited exceptions, to decide who works on their matter. If you want a specific partner or attorney to handle your matter you have the right to ask for that. But understand, you may end up paying more for this person to do so.  

Question 5: What is Your Approach to Resolving Legal Issues? 

Some attorneys are quick to litigate; others prefer negotiation and mediation. Knowing their approach can help align it with your business goals. 

Why ask this?

Simple, your attorney’s approach to resolving legal issues should mirror your business philosophy. It is like pairing a fine wine with a meal—both should complement each other perfectly. 

In conclusion, finding the right attorney for your business is not rocket science. However, it does require a bit of probing and a good sense of what your business needs. Remember, a great attorney is more than a legal advisor; they are your partner in navigating legal landmines. 

Now that you are equipped with the 7 essential questions, you are ready to embark on your quest to find the perfect attorney for your business. 

Before you go, do not forget to check out the rest of our blog entries. We have more advice, tips, and maybe even a few more laughs to share with you. As they say in the courtroom, “You may be excused… to explore our blog!” 

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