Within the business world today, entrepreneurs find it exhausting, if not downright scary, to start a successful business that will not fail in the first year, or to grow a business that will make it to the next level. While seeking free advice from business development organizations can help get your questions answered and ideas validated, in the end, your most valuable resources are your business advisors, namely your accountant, banker, and lawyer. The trick is to pick your “dream team” wisely and allow them to work with you in the long term, not for you on one isolated project. One of your most important “dream team” members is a trusted lawyer – one who understands that his or her role is to add value to your business in a kind of partnership.
Like any successful partnership, the right partner understands that he or she must take an active, rather than passive, role in the business-offering creative solutions, communicating regularly and effectively, and exhibiting a real interest and passion in the business and the industry within which it operates.
Too often, lawyers, bankers, and accountants view their job as restricted to drafting, preparing, submitting, or reviewing documents. They do not put themselves in the entrepreneur’s shoes, and instead abdicate any responsibility, claiming that your job as a business owner is to be the risk-taker. The problem with that approach is that it presumes you have the experience to know the legal and financial needs of your business, when in reality, you may not. Perhaps you just started your company and do not realize that the independent contractor you hired to create a logo for your new business could claim rights to the resulting artwork without a work-for-hire contract. Or perhaps you are trying to grow your business, but have never raised money and do not know how much decision-making control to give your investors.
Follow these three straightforward guidelines: Inquire about his or her experience representing similar businesses. A legal advisor that has counseled other businesses in your industry will be in a stronger position to add value than one who is more of a generalist. He or she will be able to foresee situations that can save you time, money, and aggravation, simply by virtue of the fact that they have been there before. For example, if you are in the restaurant business, a lawyer who has represented other restaurateurs will know to negotiate the definition of “sales” in the percentage rent clause of your lease so that you avoid paying a percentage of sales that are extraneous to your main business.
Similarly, if you are in the real estate business, a lawyer who has counseled other real estate owners will know that your third-party property management contract should delineate the precise rights and duties of the management company (including, for example, requiring the preparation of an annual marketing plan to lease the property, and outlining industry standards against which the property management will be measured). Additionally, if your business involves franchising or sales distribution arrangements, lawyers with experience in such matters will know how to counsel you regarding the breadth and scope of territory, non-compete, and exclusivity clauses depending on whether you are the franchisee or the franchisor.
This kind of advice and expertise is crucial to entrepreneurs as they take their first steps to create a solid business practice. Hiring a lawyer without experience in your industry is like getting on an airplane flown by a helicopter pilot; he or she may know how to fly but doesn’t have the specific knowledge needed to get the job done in a way that makes you feel secure.
Request a Plan, Budget and Timetable
After you describe the current state of your business (whether that state is start-up or growth) and explain why you believe that at this moment in time, your business requires his or her services, the lawyer you are considering for a position on your “team” should be able to map out step-by-step plans detailing what he can do for you. These would include estimates of how much the services will cost, and when each step in the plan can be achieved, A selected advisor’s proposed plan, budget, and timetable should make sense for your business and, most importantly, for your budget.
For example, if you are a start-up business with a single owner, a plan that includes creating a legal entity through which to transact your business, reviewing and negotiating a lease for space in which to conduct your business, preparing confidentiality and work-for-hire agreements for your independent contractors, and ascertaining whether the name you want to use for your business is not already taken makes sense and is well worth the investment in legal fees. On the other hand, a plan that includes the preparation of employment agreements (when you do not yet have any employees) and the submission of a trademark application probably does not.
Similarly, if you are an established business looking to get to the next level, a plan proposing that you apply for that trademark or prepare offering materials for stock and other equity to raise money for your expansion sounds reasonable. But suggesting that you need a full-blown private placement memorandum for your early-round capital raise would be unnecessary.
Trust Your Gut
At the end of the day, your instincts about which lawyer to hire are your best guide. After interviewing several advisors (at least two, and no more than three), you will know which ones will add value and will commit to developing that partnership with you. Just like you knew that you wanted to be an entrepreneur, you will know which lawyer is best suited for your business.
Too often, start-up companies and even established businesses do not want to invest time and money in their lawyers because they view them as cost centers, rather than value-adds. If you follow the above guidelines, you should be able to take the first step in creating a winning “team” of advisors that can add value and ultimately help ensure the success of your business.
Mathew Simond is a journalist and copywriter. He is also a webmaster of many websites including [He aims to provide health information and advice on academic degrees.
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