Protective measures

“The hiring of a lawyer is an important decision that should not be based solely upon advertisement. Before you decide, ask us to send you free information about our qualifications and experience.”

You see or hear that statement almost every day, whether you are cognizant of it or not, in television, newspaper or radio advertisements by law firms seeking your business.

It’s printed and broadcast so often that you might be tempted to ignore it, but don’t. It’s a very important statement that bar association rules require, and it is there for a very good purpose — to warn you that hiring a lawyer can have serious implications on your future and the future of your business.

Most, if not all, businesspeople will need an attorney at one time or another. You’re putting your future at risk if you set up a business without legal advice, especially if you have partners.

You may need help with collections or you could be sued by a vendor or customer. Maybe your business must comply with complex federal or state regulations. Ignorance of the law is never a defense in court, and a modest legal fee to the right attorney could literally save your business.

You should consult a general business attorney as you are planning your business. If you don’t have friends with successful businesses, then cold call a few business owners and ask them if they have an attorney they would recommend. If you want to utilize advertisements or the Yellow Pages, call and ask for information on the firm and names of references. Then call those references and see how happy they are.

A good general business attorney will help make sure your business is set up correctly, including (in consultation with your accountant) what kind of business it should be — a corporation, limited liability partnership or some other entity. This lawyer can also be invaluable in advising you on any federal, state or local laws or regulations you must comply with to operate. These can vary from one side of the street to the other, and involve everything from licenses and permits to the sign over your door.

After you are up and running, your attorney can act as a sort of general counsel. He or she will be familiar with you and your business and if you run into an unusual problem or issue, will help you find a qualified legal specialist to handle it.

There are far too many laws on the books for one lawyer to be able to handle all of your potential problems. That’s why attorneys specialize in certain areas. There are attorneys who specialize in commercial litigation and others who never step into a courtroom.

The person who does a great job closing on your home may have no idea how to defend you from a disgruntled customer. And if you should ever be audited by the IRS, that opens up a whole new world that most general practice attorneys are not equipped to handle.

Another important matter in selecting an attorney is the fee agreement. Always sign a fee agreement before commencing any legal work to avoid costly and unpleasant disagreements later. Know what you are paying and what you will get.

Be aware that many fee agreements prohibit you from suing for malpractice and instead compel arbitration. Realize that the lowest hourly fee may not mean the lowest final bill.

Lawyers shouldn’t fix their own roofs, set their own broken arms or build their own swimming pools — not if they want it done right. And roofers, doctors and pool-builders should not try to do their own legal work. You have invested blood, sweat and tears into building a business.

The best way to protect that investment is to take the time and do the research to find an attorney who suits your individual needs. It can be one of the most important business decisions you will ever make.

William R. Scherer Jr. is managing partner of Conrad & Scherer, which specializes in health care law and complex commercial litigation. Reach him at (954) 462-5500 or www.conradscherer.com.

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