It goes without saying that anyone hiring an attorney should ask questions to make sure that the attorney is the right person for them before retaining them, but here are a few questions entrepreneurs should be asking attorneys.
The first question an entrepreneur (or anyone, for that matter) will likely want to ask is “How much is this going to cost?”; however, that may not be the right way to ask the question — the right question is perhaps a little more nuanced, which I’ll cover in a moment — and if the first question is “How much?” can be a red flag to attorneys that you’re more focused on the price than the matter itself.
Instead, the first questions you could be asking include:
– “Do you have an industry focus?” I’ve worked with companies across a wide range of industries and don’t like to restrict myself to a particular industry, but if you’re in a high tech business and you have some particularly complicated and specific issues, you may be more comfortable retaining an attorney or firm that focuses on your industry and/or has experience with your particular issues.
– “Do you refer?” You can also ask what areas of practice they do not handle (such as tax or intellectual property) and if they do referrals to specialists in those areas — it’s a little easier on you if you don’t have to do the searching for a tax or IP attorney. Similarly, if your company will be needing financing, you can also ask if the attorney knows or will be willing to help you get in contact with angel investors or VC firms.
– “What’s your communication policy?” This is a broad question, but covers things such as emails (I would imagine most firms have a 24 or 48 hour email policy, but make sure there is a policy!). As a solo attorney, when clients call my number I am the only one who picks up the phone, but firms of at least several attorneys will generally have a secretary to take all incoming calls, and the largest firms may have several layers of receptionists/legal secretaries/paralegals/etc. before you get to the attorney (although with some large firms it is possible to call up the attorney directly). Some attorneys may only want to schedule phone calls. If you have concerns about being able to get a hold of the attorney, you may want to know how calls are handled. You might also ask how you can get a hold of the attorney in an emergency. (but handle the question delicately, as you don’t want to put your attorney on edge that you might be calling them at 3 in the morning!). Of course, in larger firms the attorney you meet with may a partner or senior associate and may not be the attorney you will be working and communicating with, which leads to the question…
– “Who’s going to be working on this matter?” The attorney you initially meet with may not be the attorney who works on your matter, and in larger firms a lot of work is delegated to paralegals. Aside from knowing who’s really doing the work on your matter for communication purposes, you might be uncomfortable with paralegals or junior associates handling more complicated aspects of your matter and can voice that concern — of course, the more senior the attorney working on your matter, the more expensive the bill! Which leads to…
– “How do you bill?” This is perhaps a better question than simply “How much will this cost?”, as it will also allow you to explore alternative billing practices such as flat-fee and value-add billing. If the attorney uses hourly billing, you should also ask how long it will take them to complete the matter — an attorney who charges $500 an hour but can complete a matter in 2 hours will cost less than an attorney who charges $300 an hour but will take 5 hours. You may also ask what you can do to help the attorney or expedite the matter — the less time the attorney or firm has to spend on mundane tasks such as compiling information, the less you have to spend on fees.