The legal world is so confusing that even finding a lawyer to help you navigate it can be confusing. Don't settle on the first name you see in a local TV commercial, though, because finding the right attorney is hugely important. Instead, check below for our tips on finding, recruiting and evaluating a small business attorney.

Finding the Right Attorney

The financial implications of your decision can be enormous, whether you need help with a particular pending legal action or just want to shore things up for the future. There's no one silver bullet to finding the right attorney, but there's certainly a wrong first step, and that's attempting to use giant databases like Lawyers.com, which aren't targeted to the specific needs of small businesses. Instead, try:

  • Asking around. Simple word of mouth is critical in an industry where comparative data can be scarce. Ask your entrepreneurial friends who they use before trying other resources. You may also consider only reaching out to people in your particular space, since having an attorney with experience related to your industry may prove important.
  • Fizzlaw. Unlike the larger databases, Fizzlaw features small business lawyers only. Although relatively new, it's constantly expanding its collection of attorneys and has some nifty features. Lawyers can post articles on their profiles to give you a sense of their expertise, and there's even a "Find a Lawyer" feature that'll let you input your needs and budget before matching you with someone who fits the bill.
  • LinkedIn. In many ways, this professional social network merges word of mouth with an online database, letting you explore profiles of attorneys that your friends know or have worked with.
  • Inquire with your local Chamber of Commerce, local professional association for your industry and local bar associations. You're not the first person with this question, and they can very easily direct you to the best resources.

Recruiting the Right Attorney

After your research has narrowed the field, it's time to ask for a consultation. If the lawyer asks for a consultation fee, well, they've just narrowed the field even further for you (you really shouldn't expect to have to pay for a brief consultation). As for the meeting itself:

  • Come prepared. Be able to explain your situation clearly and concisely. Are you looking for general counsel, help drafting a particular document, assistance resolving a specific legal action? Be focused and guide your attorney so that he can better assess whether or not he's the right person for the job.
  • Inquire about fees. Attorneys structure their fees many different ways: some bill by time (hour or day), some by task. Others work on retainer or contingency. If the attorney's standard fee structure or rate isn't going to work for you, tell him what you'd prefer and ask if he or she is willing to negotiate. These attorneys are running small businesses too, and they often may be willing to compromise in order to sell their services or to get referrals and recommendations within your network of other business owners.
  • Ask about potential dates for resolution. While they can't possibly tell you the future, your lawyer should be able to give you some sense of the timeline for what you're asking. That's important information when negotiating fee structure.
  • Discuss your chance of success. It's entirely possible that the legal option you came to talk about isn't a good one. Just ask! If the answer is “no,” perhaps there's some less obvious option the attorney can recommend.

Evaluating Your Small Business Attorney

Just as with a doctor, lawyers employ so much specialized knowledge that deciding which one is adequate can be difficult. But just as with a doctor, dropping a bad one can be vitally important to the health of your business. Just as with an employee, you should take time every so often to conduct performance reviews of your lawyer (at least to yourself), evaluating:

  • Has anything changed since you hired him or her? This could be something in the attorney’s performance or relationship towards you or just in the status of your legal needs. Even if you've got a great lawyer, you may not have a great need for them anymore.
  • Responsiveness. Some portion of what you're paying your lawyer for is peace of mind, the knowledge that your attorney’s looking out for your legal interest. Significant lags in his or her response times to your calls or emails detract from this and should be taken seriously.
  • Enjoyment of relationship. Priority number one is getting sound legal advice, but just like any business relationship, you should enjoy the time spent working together. If the pressing legal matter that made you initially reach out has calmed down, it may be time to think about how closely you want to work with this person in the future.