How to Find the Perfect Attorney for Your Small Business

As a small business owner, an attorney may be the most important contractor you hire.
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When hiring an attorney for your small business, make sure they have had experience working with companies similar to yours. (Photo: WAYHOME studio/Shutterstock)

Every business owner needs good legal counsel, even if it’s just for setting up your legal entity and making sure your permits are filed properly. And if things go south, you’ll want to make sure you have someone to turn to that you trust with your life — or at least your business.

Finding an attorney who’s a good fit can take a bit of legwork. Here’s how to go about it.

Related: 5 Business Functions to Consider Outsourcing

Ask for recommendations

Raad Ahmed

“If you run a business, you’ll be working closely with your attorney on a pretty regular basis and will often rely on him or her to ensure the wellbeing of your business.”
-Raad Ahmed (Photo: Raad Ahmed)

Other small business owners in your area or industry can be a great referral resource, especially since they’ve likely had to do a lot of the same research for their own business. Because the legal community tends to be tight-knit, also ask any local attorneys you know for recommendations.

Other resources include online legal directories such as Avvo, which provide ratings and reviews from clients. Or if you prefer to outsource most of the search process, service providers like LawTrades will do research for you and provide a shortlist of recommendations, said Raad Ahmed, founder and CEO of LawTrades.

Ahmed advised exploring legal services directories or the American Bar Association website, as well as checking with state and local bar associations for referrals. If you’re looking for someone with a very specific niche, consider reaching out to a professional organization that offers a relevant specialty certification program, such as the American Board of Professional Liability Attorneys.

Look for relevant experience

Find an attorney who’s worked with businesses like yours doing the types of legal work you’ll need. In other words, said Ahmed, “Don’t hire your friend that does uncontested divorces to incorporate your business and create your operating agreements.”

  • When you’re meeting with an attorney, Ahmed recommended asking these questions:
  • How long have you been practicing?
  • What experience do you have in this particular practice area?
  • What size company do you typically work with and in what industries?
  • What is your track record of success?
  • What percentage of your caseload is dedicated to working with small businesses like mine?
  • What are some tasks that may fall outside your scope of expertise?

Related: 6 Legal Mistakes Small Business Owners Make (and How to Avoid Them)

Think small — and affordable

Many businesses feel they need to use a big name corporate law firm to represent them, but hiring a large law firm can get expensive fast. “Partner rates at a large law firm can be upwards of $800 per hour,” said Ahmed.

The kinds of transactional legal work needed by small businesses in their early stages — such as entity formation, reviewing contracts and applying for permits — are much more affordable if you work with a solo practitioner or boutique firm. Most smaller attorneys are more flexible with payment arrangements and are often willing to offer flat fee or fixed pricing arrangements rather than billing hourly.

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Hiring a large law firm can be unnecessarily expensive. Instead, try working with a smaller firm that can charge a flat rate for services. (Photo: areebarbar/Shutterstock)

Just keep in mind, noted Ahmed, that as the work becomes more complex or if your business needs regular, ongoing legal assistance, it can become more difficult for attorneys to charge a flat rate.

Not only will using a smaller firm save you a lot of money, said Ahmed, but many of their attorneys have experience working at larger corporate firms, giving you the best of both worlds. “You’ll receive individualized attention from the partners instead of being passed off to a junior associate member,” he said.

One tactic larger firms use to win your business is offering deferred fees, but be cautious with this approach. Firms that do this usually charge interest, which can be bad news if your business is still getting started and struggling to turn a profit when the bill arrives.

Test the chemistry

When you meet with an attorney, make sure your personalities click. The person should strike you as transparent, honest and easy to communicate with.

“If you run a business, you’ll be working closely with your attorney on a pretty regular basis and will often rely on him or her to ensure the wellbeing of your business,” said Ahmed. “This is especially true in the early stages when the business will face a lot of critical legal decisions.”

And at some point a sensitive matter might arise — a lawsuit from a customer, for example — and trust will become even more critical.

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