How Attorneys Add Value to Your Business

For most people, talking to an attorney usually means that someone is in trouble. And if you’re the one who’s calling an attorney, chances are the person in trouble is you or someone you know.

Attorneys are usually best-known as a last resort for helping people stay out of trouble. But attorneys also provide other value-added services to both individuals and businesses.

Maybe attorneys have gotten a bad reputation because of the way society portrays them in the media. After all, attorneys aren’t exactly painted in the most flattering light. We’ve all read about the high-profile cases and the huge million-dollar settlements. We’ve all seen the attorneys portrayed on television as being greedy, indifferent, and overly-concerned with their fees. In fact shows like Boston Legal not only entertain viewers with the antics of their behavior but win awards for doing it! And, of course, we’ve all heard the lawyer jokes.

But despite what you’ve heard or read, or what your personal feelings about attorneys might be, attorneys do provide a valuable and much-needed service in a number of different areas. In addition to their main duties of upholding the law and protecting client’s rights, here are just a few other areas in which attorneys add value to businesses.

  • They help resolve legal disputes
  • They help prevent legal problems or limit their consequences
  • They provide legal representation if you’re arrested for a crime
  • They can handle the legal aspects of starting a business and forming a partnership or corporation
  • They can provide counsel on local, state and federal tax matters
  • They represent your interests in a lawsuit
  • They provide legal counsel when filing for bankruptcy
  • They can protect you against claims from customers or other businesses
  • They can identify business risks you may not be aware of
  • They can help you stay in compliance with rules and regulations in your business or industry
  • They can defend you in court
  • They can handle negotiations on your behalf
  • They can assist with general corporate matters
  • They can assist with mergers and acquisitions
  • They can advise on intellectual property matters such as copyrights, patents and trademarks
  • They can handle matters of Labor and Employment law, workplace safety issues, unions, and government compliance

Now, a lot of these areas of law may not seem very exciting or glamorous. And chances are most wouldn’t make very riveting prime time viewing. But if you’re the one who has the problem, it’s nice to know that there’s a knowledgeable expert available who can help you solve it, and they’re just a phone call away.

 

10 Tips for Finding the Right Legal Counsel

Mention the word attorney in a crowd of people and you are likely to get a wide range of reactions. Let’s face it most of us associate attorneys with law suits, trouble with the law and court dates. All things that can cost us money! However, there are many situations in which an attorney can be proactive in preventing legal problems. There are times when everyone can benefit from legal expertise whether you are a large corporation, a self employed business owner or an individual. If you are buying property, starting a business, or even entering into an employment contract having legal counsel can ensure that your rights are protected and that you do not make missteps that can cause you problems in the future. For corporations that have in-house counsel, there are many reasons why outside counsel is retained including the need for representation in a particular jurisdiction or the need for specialized legal knowledge.

Whether you are an Association, a global corporation or a small business owner, there are general tips which will assist you in choosing the right legal counsel for your unique needs. Choosing legal counsel is not unlike choosing any other professional service organization. It is important to first clearly understand your needs and then to carefully screen the professionals that meet your pre-defined qualifications to find the right fit.

1. Determine the area of legal expertise that you need. Are you in need of general legal counsel that will advise you in your business? Do you need an attorney to manage your fundraising campaign? There are law firms that specialize in representing certain types of businesses, in example one firm may represent several homeowner associations and have an expertise in this area, another may represent technology firms and understand this niche business. In addition to the practice specialty (i.e. intellectual property, real estate, trust) you may also require a firm that has experience with similar clients.
a. Can you use a mediator? Structured payments, apology, retraction, letters of recommendation, confidentiality agreements, barter and agreements for future business are some of the workable options in mediation that may not be available in litigation. Mediation is less expensive and takes less time than litigation.

2. Identify potential candidates. You can ask colleagues, friends, and others for referrals. State bar associations have legal referral services or you can visit the American Bar Association’s website, www.abanet.org for a list of attorneys in your area. A reference like Martindale Hubbel or West’s law directory online can be useful in identifying lawyers with the expertise you need and the type of clients they represent.

3. Screen the potential candidates. Contact the potential candidates and ask them to send you basic information on their firm and the services they provide. You may also screen by phone. Have they handled clients/cases similar to yours? How recently? What were the results? Are they willing to provide references?

4. Meet face to face. Narrow down your list from the preliminary screening and meet face to face with the top three or four candidates. Ensure that you will not be charged for the initial consultation. For corporations engaging counsel the face to face will be a briefing of your needs.

5. Request a proposal from each of the candidates that you have met face to face. The proposal should outline services, fees and a preliminary timeline.

6. Check references. Verify credentials with the State Bar Association. Call the references provided. Would they use the firm again? Were they satisfied with the results? Were there problems, and if so were they satisfactorily resolved?

7. Determine if there is chemistry. In addition to legal expertise and a track record in your area of need, you will need to form a good working relationship with your counsel. While you should certainly not select an attorney based on the color of their suit or style of dress, you do need to select someone with whom you can have a collaborative working relationship. The attorney client relationship is one of mutual trust and collaboration.

8. Define the relationship. Once you have selected counsel and notified the other firms of your choice and reasons for that choice (this is a common courtesy) it’s time to get to work with counsel. The relationship should be clearly defined in a contract. The contract should very specifically address services, fees, schedule, personnel, location, and process for termination. Make sure your attorney agrees to abide by the American Bar Association’s Model Rules of Professional Conduct, portions of which govern attorney fees. What services will be provided and by whom? Will paralegals, investigators or junior counsel do some of the work on your case? Where will the services be provided – onsite or offsite? What are the fees and how often will you be billed? What other expenses will you have to pay, i.e. document copy services, transportation? Who will make contractual decisions? Who will be responsible for billing (in an hourly arrangement is there a designated timekeeper)? What is the process for termination? How often will you communicate and how? Specify that all work product belongs to you, the client. This is especially important if you find it necessary to terminate the attorney. This is the time to clearly work through your expectations of counsel as well as their expectations of you. Make no assumptions. If you do not understand something, seek clarification.

9. Provide counsel with the information they need. Your counsel is your advisor, your advocate. In order to adequately represent your interests they will need all pertinent information. Do not withhold information. It is akin to going to a physician for a problem but failing to provide him or her with a medical history.

10. Communicate. All good relationships require open communication. If you have questions or concerns, bring them to counsel’s attention. Remember you are the client and counsel does want to meet your needs.

Peril and Opportunity

The California Homeowners Bill of Rights, effective 1/1/2013, is turning the state into a judicial foreclosure jurisdiction. The bill authorized fines of up to $50,000 against lenders and trustees for “wrongful” foreclosures.

The bill also gives homeowners the right to sue for damages and for recovery of attorney fees. I’ll post more on this topic in the coming weeks, and why this “sea change” adds to the instability of the California real estate market, creating peril and opportunity alike

Tax Relief?

BottomLine Lawyers helps taxpayers who have found themselves unable to meet their tax burden. Recently we came across an article that provides a different, global perspective on US tax policy. You can read it here.

The authors of the piece, Citizens for Tax Justice, reach these sometimes surprising conclusions:

1. Virtually all Americans, including the poorest Americans, pay taxes.

2. America is NOT overtaxed.

3. Wealthy Americans are NOT overtaxed.

4. U.S. corporations are Undertaxed.

5. Tax cuts for the rich do not help our economy.

6. Your Tax Bracket is Not Your Effective Tax Rate

Food for thought, indeed.

Scared Stockless

MoneyNews is reporting (5/14) a truly scary story: Billionaires are dumping stocks whose value depends on consumer spending.Robert Wiedemer, an esteemed economist and author of the New York Times best-selling book Aftershock cites specific research that points toward a massive market correction, as much as 90%. Are Buffet, Paulson and Soros wrong? Read the article, watch the interview and decide for yourself.

Introduction to Bankruptcy – Audio Only

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5 Best Practices for Controlling Legal Costs

Many people cringe at the mere thought of being “forced” to hire an attorney. Hiring legal expertise is an expense that most people would live without and unfortunately there is the pervasive myth that all attorneys are out to gleefully take the shirt off your back! While the average consumer may only have to occasionally hire legal expertise, businesses must include legal as a line item expense in their budget. Fortunately, as with every service there are things that you can do to keep your legal costs from spiraling out of control.

Hire an attorney. One of the best ways to control legal costs is to seek legal expertise before there is a problem! Attorneys will help you to manage risk so that you avoid pitfalls that could cost you money. If you are setting up a corporation, or negotiating a large contract, it is worth it to involve an attorney experienced in that area. Your attorney will ensure that the terms minimize your exposure to risk. Even if you have contracted with a firm, or have in-house counsel it is important to communicate with them to avoid costly legal mistakes. Having a firm on retainer will mean nothing if you do not stay in communication with them about your business.

Hire the right attorney. This may seem counter-intuitive but many businesses believe that one firm can handle all of their legal needs. The most productive and cost efficient path is to hire the specific expertise you need. A firm that specializes in a particular area of the law will handle a much higher volume of those types of cases as opposed to a firm that handles those same cases on an occasional basis. In example, you have contracted with a large law firm for your business. You have a copyright issue that occurs and the firm has their in-house Corporate specialist handle the matter. This attorney has handled 6 copyright cases in the past 12 months. As such, it takes him 30 hours to research your case. Another firm that specializes in copyright issues handles 10 cases per day. This firm would be able to research and resolve your issue in 10 hours. In hiring the right attorney you have saved money and time. In another example, let’s assume that you have a neighbor that is an attorney who specializes in trademarks. You are planning to invest in a real estate deal and seek her advice. Although your neighbor is an attorney and as such has legal expertise this is not her area of practice. She could certainly research the issue and in the end would do a competent job. (This is for illustrative purposes only. In the real world your neighbor would explain to you that it is not her expertise and would offer to refer you to someone else.) However, it would be much more time and cost efficient to deal with an attorney whose area of expertise is real estate. Hiring the right attorney is much like choosing the right physician. If you have a heart problem you would see a cardiologist and not a podiatrist. While both are trained medical professionals they each have a specific area of expertise.

Negotiate the right fee structure. Law firms offer many types of billing arrangements beyond the traditional hourly billing schedule. You should explore the options with your attorney and decide on the best fee structure for your legal needs. Hourly billing is not to be avoided at all costs, it may be the best option for you, but it is important to have the discussion. You may decide upon a fixed fee agreement. This is similar to a project fee in that you and your attorney agree to a scope of work and agree on a flat fee for that work. This is helpful in that it enables you to budget your legal expense in advance. Contingent fees are another fee structure. In this arrangement, the legal fees are contingent upon the results. In most contingent fee structures there is also some type of fee, typically a limited number of hours at a reduced hourly rate. In example you would pay 10 hours at $200.00 per hour, but if you won your case, there would be an additional 10% of the settlement. Similar to a contingency fee, you and your attorney may agree upon a reduced hourly rate plus a bonus structure. The most important thing is to have the discussion and work with your attorney to define the fee structure that meets your needs.

In addition to negotiating the fee structure, you should also clearly define what is included in the fees and what would be considered an additional expense. In example, if your attorney has to meet you on location, will you pay for the transportation expense? Will you be charged for document services, such as process serving, title searches, or photocopying? If the firm outsources a portion of the work, how is that billing handled? You can avoid surprises and control your costs by clarifying these issues up front and negotiating how they will be handled.

Review your bills. We all know that we should carefully review every bill we receive and clarify any questionable item, but too often we perform a cursory review and write a check. In reviewing your legal bills, you will be analyzing two broad areas, accounting and performance. In reviewing the accounting you want to ensure that the bills accurately reflect the negotiated terms. Are there other expenses included on the bill? Are you being billed for supervisory, clerical or administrative tasks? Your bill can also help you to analyze your firm’s performance. How many hours are being spent on tasks? How does this compare to other firms? What is the cost per activity? Is time being spent and billed appropriately, i.e. is a senior partner doing the work of a paralegal? You are in control of your legal spend and it is important to identify the firm that meets your policies and has the best practices. The firm with the lowest billable hour may not be the most efficient, thus costing you more money in the long term. Without reviewing your bill and comparing you will not have the needed information to control your legal costs.

Communicate with your attorney. You should clearly identify your goals to your attorney. It is not enough to simply present your attorney with a legal task but ensure that the attorney clearly understands your goal for the end result. In example, if you are in a partnership with another party and you hire a firm to sue the partner over a specific dispute, but never tell the firm that you want to dissolve the partnership you will spend money on litigation that will not net your desired outcome. Just as important as stating your goal is to maintain close communication. Monitor your attorney’s activities, stay in close contact either through phone calls, emails or regular meetings. You will keep the firm up to date on your business activities as well as ensure that your legal dollars are being wisely spent.

It is impossible for businesses to avoid legal expenses, but it is quite feasible to manage those expenses. The best practices outlined along with a clear legal strategy will help you to have a better relationship with your law firm as well as feel a lot better when you receive their bill!