Choosing a Lawyer: Not all are the same

Many entrepreneurs think that lawyer is a generic term. They might say, “I need to hire a lawyer.” But the mistake they make in doing so is that they fail to recognize that there are many kinds of lawyers. Just like doctors, most lawyers have specialized in an area of the law and are paid for that expertise.  When you have a problem to deal with, you need to be clear about the kind of lawyer you need to call on for help.  If you had a problem with your eyes, you wouldn’t call a podiatrist; acquiring legal counsel is the same.

Areas of Expertise

The law has become so complex that it’s impossible for anyone lawyer to be an expert in all areas. As a result, lawyers, just like doctors, have specialized. The key is to find a lawyer who is an expert in the area you need help in. If you don’t, it can cost you a lot of time and money.

Case in point, I was recently dealing with a client who was trying to buy a company. But the seller had hired a friend of his, an intellectual property attorney, to help with the transaction. While this lawyer knew everything to do with IP, he didn’t know the basics of how to conduct an acquisition or the important laws and contracts that applied. As a result, he cost both sides significantly more money and headaches, as well as expensive delays, which all could have been avoided if the seller had hired an expert in M&A transactions.

So, let’s look at some of the primary areas of specialization that you might need to hire a lawyer in order to help with your business.

1. Corporate Attorney

A corporate attorney is more of a generalist who understands the ins and outs of business law–things like filings, corporate structures, and some tax law. A competent attorney like this can serve as valuable counsel for you in the business, who can then refer you to a specialist when needed. This is most like your family doctor: capable broadly, but a master of no one area.

2. Employment Lawyer

About half of all cases in courts involving businesses deal with employment law. It also happens to be one of the areas inside your business where you can easily mess up and lose your case if you don’t have competent representation. This is one area where you need a specialist, even if they cost a bit more. A good employment lawyer can also help draft things like non-compete contracts for employees with clauses that will hold up in your state. Another area where a good employment lawyer can pay for themselves is if you are dealing with a labor organization effort inside the business. This is an area where it can be easy to make devastating mistakes if you’re not getting the right advice.

3. IP Attorney

If your business has assets like patents, trademarks, and copyrights, a good intellectual property lawyer can help you maximize their value while also protecting them. A good IP attorney can be especially useful when it comes to licensing your IP, where they can help write contracts and other legal constructs to ensure your IP is protected and that you get paid.

4. Real Estate Attorney

Anytime you’re looking to buy or even lease a property, investing in a good real estate attorney is a good idea. They know everything about real estate law, and they can help you get the best terms on your purchase agreement or lease–including exit clauses, which you might need in the future.

5. Franchise Lawyer

Franchising is an extremely complicated area of business law, especially from the franchisor’s perspective, because you need to understand the rights of your franchisees, which are highly protected. You never want to make promises you can’t keep or accidentally step past a regulation. A good franchise lawyer can help you navigate the complex world of state and federal laws that surround franchising to help you make the successful jump to taking your business national.

6. M&A Attorney

A company is typically the most valuable asset in your portfolio. As such, you need the best advice you can get when it comes time to sell it or acquire another one. You need to rely on someone who understands the big issues and who can help ensure you not only maximize the value of that asset but also have the right protections in place so that you don’t lose value. There are even specialists within the specialists: Certain M&A attorneys focus on specific vertical markets, like pharmaceuticals, which means they bring an even greater wealth of information and experience to your side.

7. Bankruptcy Attorney

This is the lawyer you hope you never need. But many entrepreneurs call on a bankruptcy lawyer when it’s already too late. The whole idea is to hire someone who can help you with your situation in a way that helps you reorganize or roll up the business in order to minimize risk to you and your shareholders and lenders. A bankruptcy lawyer can be extremely valuable in guiding you through to the other side.

Make the Right Choice

These are just a sample of the hundreds of kinds of specialist lawyers out there. But the key lesson is that any time you plug the wrong attorney into a job, they’re going to make mistakes, which will result in wasted time and money, and worse outcomes. And that happens far more often than it should.

Take the time to understand the nature of the issue you’re dealing with and then spend the money to hire the legal expert who is most qualified to give you the advice you need to get the best possible outcome.

Jim Schleckser