Triad Business News
I have already made the pitch on why every businessman should have his own lawyer rather than
naively believing that he could tag along on someone else’s. In this column, I will touch on
how to find a lawyer that is suited to you, when to call her, and what to expect.
Finding a lawyer that is suited to you is not as easy as finding a doctor. Today, the HMOs or
the insurance company’s preferred providers list almost dictate the choice of doctors. At least,
they will give you a list to choose from.
If you have a tort-liability insurance policy or are a member of a prepaid legal-services
insurance plan, you will either have a lawyer paid by the insurer assigned to defend you or be
given a short list to choose from.
In most other cases, some may think that all the prospective client has to do is refer to the
classified portion of the telephone book or to a bar association referral service.
I suggest that the businessman go through another exercise. First, if I were a member of a
trade association, I would ask some members who their lawyers are. I would also call the trade
association executive, find out who represented the association, and see whether that person is
active in the technical matters of the trade or primarily a lobbyist or trade-association
If the trade association lawyer was from out of town, I would ask her for the names of some
local lawyers that represented people in the trade or profession.
I would find out who represented my competitors. I would not necessarily rule them out. I
would have a very candid conversation about how conflicts would be handled.
Here, it is important to go back to the comment about the "don’t learn on me syndrome." Deep
down inside you want someone who really knows the business sector in which you do business. She
cannot share any proprietary information that comes either from you or from your competitor,
but you will hire her because she has experience.
You will hire her because she has enough other clients with similar interests and problems to
make it financially practical for her to keep up in that area, attending legal education
programs and professional meetings geared to your business sector.
You should look for a long-term relationship. You also should look for backup: Who will handle
your affairs when she is not available?
See now how the sexist writer chooses his words for the subtle double entendre. Also, one of
the "hot topics" in legal ethics is the extent to which, if any, a liaison between a lawyer and
her client is ethical for the lawyer. Several years ago, a title insurance company was passing
out lapel buttons at the annual meeting of the bar association entitled "I Love Lawyers." I
wonder how that would fly today?
Does she have assistance in other specialty areas either in her firm or through longstanding
associations with other lawyers? Tax, securities, employment matters, pension plans - each has
a niche of its own without any particular allegiance to any particular business sector to the
typical exclusion of others. In other words, labor lawyers will be as likely to handle a strike
for a textile manufacturer as for a building contractor or retailer.
However, your lawyer should know which lawyers in these niches seem to have sufficient clients
involved in your business to make sure that, again, they "don’t learn on you."
Although I am a member of a large firm for North Carolina, if I were you I would not confine
my search to one of the large firms. A lot of small firms represent clients in a particular
business sector quite well and call in other specialists when needed.
They next to most ("penultimately," if you are not moving your lips) important thing is not to
use Cousin Vinny for your legal work. If you saw the movie of the same name, you know what I
mean. If not, you ought to check it out for an interesting and entertaining evening on the VCR.
Remember, though, using Cousin Vinny only turns out right in the movies.
The most ("ultimately") important thing is to make sure you have "good vibes" with whomever you
choose. This may sound ridiculous at first, but I really mean it. You must be able to feel
like your lawyer is your lawyer and is looking out for you.
Life is too short for you to be satisfied with mere technical skills and knowledge of the law.
If you are convinced that the person you select really cares about you and your business, the
chances are that you will be getting good legal advice in the process. You will be able to
communicate candidly and enjoy each other’s company, although most of the time you will be
paying for the experience.
If she does not know the answer to your question, she will say so candidly. Law school is
supposed to teach would-be lawyers what questions to ask and how to find the answers. The
practice of law should continue that process: asking questions and finding answers.
The longer one practices, the more questions one should ask. Often, the answers will be
apparent to the experienced. Judgment is honed by this process, but not necessarily achieved
Some people, lawyers included, know all of the answers but none of the questions; and others
know all of the questions but none of the answers; some are fairly able at each but don’t know
what to do with what they find. Judgment is knowing what do with what you find.
Occasionally, the answers to a businessman’s questions are inconsistent with the business plan
because of the influence of tax, securities, regulatory, or other considerations. You should
not be content with a lawyer that merely says "No."
Absent a basically dishonest or criminal scheme, which is rarely the case, the business
objective can be accomplished most of the time: albeit differently in some aspects. She should
be able to identify the risks involved, suggest alternative methods where appropriate, and let
you make the "No" decision.
However, after a long and/or intimate relationship, she will probably know what your choice will
be as soon as she describes the risk factors. Identifying the risk factors, alternatives and
solutions is a good example of the exercise of good judgment.
To get the most benefit from the process requires teamwork with your lawyer. I strongly suggest
that to be on the same team, you have "good vibes" for each other. I say this notwithstanding
the fact that some lawyers and their clients have "enjoyed" an extremely durable love-hate
relationship to their apparent mutual benefit.
Medicine has its comparisons to the law. You would remove a splinter from your finger; you
would not remove your own appendix. The same rule of reason would seem to apply to your legal
affairs. The problem with legal affairs is that sometimes what appears to be splinter removal
is disguised major surgery, and it can be difficult to know the difference. A skilled legal
adviser may help you deal with the dilemma.
A lawyer familiar with your business in particular and the business sector in which you operate
should be able to give you advice that will, at the minimum, prevent your being at a competitive
One highly beneficial side effect of a long-term relationship with your lawyer is that she will
help you learn to distinguish between splinter removal and major surgery and "when to call the
doctor" and when to "take two aspirin, and call me in the morning."
Billing practices may tend to encourage the "two aspirin" treatment. However, the most
foolish, and sometimes the most expensive, thing a client can do is fail to seek his lawyer’s
advice when he has that suspicion that something just does not sound right.
The short phone call to the lawyer that knows not only your business sector, but also knows
your business, often can help you analyze the risk/reward ratio of a pending matter.
In passing, I must also point out that no matter how hard you and your lawyer try to avoid it,
your lawyer will have to learn on you to some extent. She certainly will learn about your
particular business and how routine matters are handled, and something about the personalities
of those handling them.
Contrary to the sage, there are new things under the sun, at least in the field of law. Every
time the legislature meets or a court issues an opinion, the law changes to some degree. You
should expect to participate in your lawyer’s learning experience at least to that extent.
Your participation may be in the form of direct charges for a particular continuing legal
education or trade association program.
More likely, however, is that your participation in her learning will be included in the rate
of compensation you pay: the higher her rate, the less likely she will have to learn on you,
and vice versa...and this leads us to the next column.
Toolbox Point: Choose your lawyer with a view toward a long-term relationship.
Dudley Humphrey is a partner at Petree Stockton, LLP, in Winston-Salem, where he tries to
represent clients rather than merely handling cases. His principal areas of practice are
construction litigation, business litigation, a wide variety of transactional matters, trust and
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