Firm commitment Featured

8:00pm EDT October 26, 2009

Paying a lawyer may be the last thing you want to think about. But when it comes to keeping your company afloat, seeking counsel can be your life vest.

During troubled times, you need an adviser who understands your business and your leadership personality. While many CEOs see trips to the lawyer’s office in terms of dollar signs, keeping ahead of the legal curve will pay off in the long run.

“A lawyer can be a valuable business tool in this economy to help a client anticipate what their needs would be, what kind of exposures and challenges they might bring about, and what would need to be navigated down the line,” says Jill P. Meyer, member-in-charge, Cincinnati, Frost Brown Todd LLC.

Your attorney can be a valuable member of your cabinet who provides strategic advice to boost your bottom line. By viewing your lawyer as a business partner — and his or her fee as an investment in your company — you can capitalize on your lawyer’s legal training and experience.

Develop an effective relationship

By understanding where you’ve been and where you’re headed, your attorney can help you navigate the corporate waters and avoid legal icebergs. But the only way he or she is going to acquire that knowledge is through open discussions.

“Make sure that every communication with the lawyer is absolutely frank, upfront and perfectly honest — whether it’s something the businessperson wishes were part of the facts or not,” Meyer says. “It’s important to make sure that all of the known facts are on the table so that the lawyer can properly analyze the situation.”

While some matters, such as tax tips, can result in tangible savings, others may not show an immediate fiscal return. Still, it’s hard to image what costly bumps you may encounter without the foresight of a seasoned professional.

“There are lots of legal areas where companies that spend a little time upfront with an attorney to anticipate a plan and put some watch guards in place before things happen save a whole lot of time, hassle and certainly money, if the situation arises,” Meyer says.

The best advice at the right time can save a bundle. However, you can’t be shelling out for unnecessary discussions. Thinking through an issue before calling your lawyer makes the best use of his or her time and your money. Routine situations, such as hiring matters, may be handled by your human resources department, where more complex situations, like harassment claims, require immediate legal attention.

If a matter requires a meeting with your lawyer, prepare notes, gather documents and create an agenda in advance. Sending information to your attorney ahead of time lets him come prepared to address the issue. Ensuring that the appropriate people are in the meeting or available on-call can avoid a costly follow-up.

“Communicate before the meeting to say, ‘This is what we’re going to be talking about. Let’s talk about who it makes sense to be there … and who will be on-call in case we need to delve into the matter further,’” Meyer says.

Investing in appropriate communication builds a long-term partner. However, it’s important to trim away excess chatter. Designating one contact person in your company eliminates the chance of your lawyer giving the same advice twice. If you have a recurring document, such as a purchase agreement, ask your attorney to approve a form you can use repeatedly, without getting his or her OK each time.

If you are hesitant to call your lawyer for fear of being charged by the hour, you may find relief in negotiating a flat rate for some services. Flat fees work best with a finite project, such as trademark filings. With many companies anxious to budget their costs, most attorneys will discuss fee structures.

“Alternate billing arrangements are all the rage right now,” Meyer says. “I don’t think you’re going find a lawyer who will say they only do billable hours. If there is a lawyer saying that, then they are just not paying attention.”

The billable hour makes sense when it is unclear how much attention the matter will require, such as litigation. In hourly situations, it’s wise to ask for the person with the lowest billing level who can perform the work well. A junior associate can handle smaller issues in exchange for a slimmer bill. With complex matters, it is more efficient to pay a higher hourly rate for a fast-working, experienced partner.

No matter the billing structure, be sure to get a written contract that includes not only the services and the rate but also builds in checkpoints where the lawyer will call to discuss progress.

“You have to have great confidence in each other,” says Edward D. Diller, partner-in-charge, Cincinnati office, Taft Stettinius & Hollister LLP. “If a business meets with their lawyer and trusts them, they can look each other in the eye … and have a decent relationship.”

When your business is moving along, it’s beneficial to check in with your attorney at least once a year. Such interactions make you a household name in the firm and can result in better overall service.

“If businesses are just thinking of law firms just in terms of legal issues then they are thinking too narrowly,” Diller says. “I would hope that companies would think about their lawyers … as ways to develop and enhance their business, as ways to get business counselors in a sense that includes legal issues but goes beyond that.”

Find the right fit

Before you turn over your spreadsheets, make sure your attorney complements your style. You may be eager for your day in court, but your attorney is best in settlements. Being on the same page is imperative to long-term success.

“So many things happen from start to finish that getting the legal strategy in place as soon as possible will always leave a company in a better position moving forward, regardless of the challenges,” Meyer says.

Finding a legal mind that matches your corporate spirit is no small task. As with other services, it’s wise to get recommendations from your colleagues. Referrals from your current professional team, such as your banker and accountant, can be especially helpful. Also consider the lawyer’s role in the area.

“Lawyers are often involved in community service,” Diller says. “As people have seen them in those roles, what have they seen? Have they seen people who make good judgments? People who have good relationships and have the bigger picture in mind?”

Consider where others in your industry get their legal advice. Intimate knowledge of your market is priceless when it comes to staying on top of regulatory changes. And the legal relationship is bound by attorney-client confidentiality, so you can sleep easy knowing your company’s dark secrets aren’t being broadcast.

Once you’ve identified a few lawyers, schedule brief meetings with each. While many firms can handle the technical work, it’s important to find someone you feel comfortable with. Ultimately, the better you and your lawyer know and understand each other, the more hazards you can avoid.

“They have to trust that their lawyer knows and understands them and is going to give good, solid, capable advice,” Diller says.