Here's a general tip to consider: lawyers are secret entrepreneurs. They usually run their own individual practice even if they are with a firm. And, much like an entrepreneur, in your lawyer's practice the buck stops with them. Like any business owner, a lawyer is motivated to work most efficiently and effectively when a client gives them full, true and plain information. Use this knowledge to help your lawyer advise you properly. Even if you haven't yet retained a lawyer, these tips can help you get maximum value from an initial legal consultation.
1. Get your story straight and (briefly) on paper. It's always prudent to put your five W's - who, what, where, why and when – on paper in chronological order with proper full legal names and any important facts about the legal and business context. You would be surprised to know how quickly a six minute increment of your lawyer's billable hour can be filled by missing legal details like names, contact details, timing and amounts.
2. Openly discuss legal fee details. Once your lawyer has a clear sense of the work required (meaning they're aware of any aspect of the matter that is likely to result in legal fees), have a direct and open discussion about fee details. Discuss the five Ws of your legal fees – what will you be required to pay when, and approximately how much in total? Also it's worth asking about staffing - whether your legal matter could be handled by a junior lawyer or clerk instead of a more senior lawyer.
3. It's not always better to ask forgiveness than permission. Almost every lawyer can tell you a story about a client who incurred more legal fees than necessary because the legal work wasn't done right the first time. Long term legal issues can easily be overlooked for the sake of getting a deal done. Avoid putting yourself in a situation where you need to incur costs by asking for forgiveness from an investor, bank, customer, supplier other third party rather than permission.
4. Keep your corporate house in order. Technically, if you have incorporated a company it is a "legal person." Keep a central file with current copies of all signed corporate documents. Many lawyers can tell you about unnecessary legal costs incurred because they (or worse, the client's customer or investor) discovered that a company was not in good standing under its incorporating statute just before a deal was scheduled to close.
5. Act, don't react. Legal matters can be difficult to plan because they may not be a daily part of your business. Improve your lawyer's ability to plan and manage legal matters by keeping a central list of issues. You might also want to ask your lawyer to bundle your legal advice by scheduling calls or meetings that addressing multiple legal matters in one shot. Finally, consider tracking your legal project's ongoing list of action items and deadlines for your lawyer and anyone else involved in your legal matters.
Helgi Maki has practiced corporate law for over ten years, and is qualified to practice in Ontario and New York. As a partner at Bennett Jones LLP she strives to act in the best interest of clients by enabling them to find the most efficient and effective ways to deal with business law issues and lawyers.