When I work on Engaged Legal Collective, I am not working as a lawyer. That’s my day job, and not this blog or shop. Here, am writing as a business person/ blogger/ wanna be stay-at-home-dog-mom who happens to know a lot about the law. But today, for the first time, I am going to talk to you as an attorney.
I see many creative entrepreneurs freaking out about finding an attorney, not knowing who to turn to, or making bad decisions when it comes to hiring people on their “A-Team.” You simply don’t know where to start, but know for a fact that you don’t want to walk into that dark, musty lawyer’s office down the road and work with that old buy who smells like mothballs. And it doesn’t need to be like this!
Today, I’m going to talk to you about what you need to know about hiring an attorney from an attorney. That’s how to hire someone who is going to best serve your business, and who will take your creative business seriously. Because guess what? You are a mogel in the making, ya rockstar. You could be the next Amy Porterfield. Jenna Kutcher. Think Creative Collective. Jasmine Star. And you can’t do that without your A-Team, including your word-ninja attorney.
So let me put on my “day job” hat/ power heels and tell you how to find someone who GETS YOU. But remember: I’m a lawyer, not your lawyer.
Oh, before we get started: There’s no difference between a lawyer and an attorney. You’d be surprised how often I get asked that. People just don’t know!
Find a lawyer before you NEED one.
I’m pretty sure this is a saying that refers to doctors, but it really applies to anyone on your business’s team. You don’t want to be looking for an attorney under pressure. Find one before you need one, and before your’re on a time crunch. It takes a while to build trust in us, which is critical to our success as your counselor. You’re trusting us with your deepest, darkest concerns— so you need to trust our judgement. That takes time to grow! We don’t expect that overnight. But when you come to us in a tailspin and with a ticking time-bomb of a legal issue, you’re giving us a lot to diffuse with one hand tied behind our backs.
Picture it this way: You’re running your business like a pro. Life is awesome. Then, you’re working away one day and the Sheriff rolls up and serves you with a lawsuit. Yep, a big old yellow envelope with “COMES NOW, PLAINTIFF SUZIE SMITH…” in black and white. Cue the tears and overwhelming anxiety! What do you do? How do you figure out how to deal with this? Who do you call? Is this real? Does this person have a case? What are the deadlines?! And what’s a litigation hold????! You start Googling everything on the internet and start calling lawyers in the area. Because it’s the weekend, no one can respond until Monday morning, which means you have the rest of the weekend to sit and over-analyze. On Monday, you get a stack of “engagement paperwork” from the attorney that you have to fill out before you can even schedule a time to start talking about your lawsuit (to be fair to us, the State Bars make us all run conflict-of-interest checks and get intake paperwork).
Now, in the alternative: You’re working away on your next event or on editing your last batch of photos. You get a call from your business attorney, who you’ve been working with for a few months. He or she calmly informs you that you’ve been served with a lawsuit, but i) breaks down what it actually means, ii) cuts through the ambiguous language and over-the-top threats to the meat of the issue, and iii) discusses your game plan. Heck, he or she may already have an idea of how to get half of this thing dismissed on technicalities. 👌 He/ she tells you not to contact Suzie and what to say if she contacts you. He/ she instructs you on what information to gather. You schedule a time to meet the next day to begin preparing a response.
In both situations, you’re stressed because lawsuits are stressful, duh. But in the second scenario, you have control over the situation instead of existing in a vortex of Google-fueled confusion until one of the attorneys your mom’s-sister’s-friend used calls you back.
Moral of the story? In the words of Max Brooks, “If you believe you can accomplish everything by "cramming" at the eleventh hour, by all means, don't lift a finger now. But you may think twice about beginning to build your ark once it has already started raining”
― Max Brooks, The Zombie Survival Guide: Complete Protection from the Living Dead
Ask for their background.
Find out if they’ve worked in the creative community before. There’s a “culture” to take into consideration, and it shouldn’t be your responsibility (or on your dime!) to educate them on how you want/ need documents drafted or negotiations handled. Remember: we were trained to be “zealous advocates” in any way possible, which means going for the jugular. Make sure they have a good idea of the collaborative spirit of the industry before they are part of your A-team to avoid burning any bridges/ going full nuclear on people.
And contrary to popular belief, attorneys don’t do all things— because of ever-increasing regulations, a “general practitioner” is rare. We instead usually specialize in our areas of practice, just like doctors or real estate agents. An attorney may not have the know how to write you a Model Release if they only practice criminal law— so make sure they have experience and know-how to assist you. You can just ask outright what percent of their practice they dedicate to these types of matters. Lying would be an ethical breach on our part.
Some ways to ask? Ask about their caseload breakdown. Ask if they’ve spoken at any industry-related events. Ask if they have reviews from clients in the industry (tip: they may not be able to share this, as even client identities are considered confidential and can’t be divulged without prior consent). And throw around some industry terms to see if they can keep up.
Ask how they bill. 💲💲💲
This is muy importante.
You need to find out how your attorney bills.
Savvy, “hip” lawyers (at least I like to think this way) have moved into flat fee billing whenever possible, which means “one dollar amount”— e.g. every normal store in America. You go in, look at a price tag, and pay that amount. Cool! So if you need a contract drafted, we’ll be able to say, “that’s $700,” and you pay us…. $700. Easy. (Well, easy for you , but harder for us. I won’t bore you with details, but I’m sure you know how difficult it is to price service-based businesses.) You’d think that would be the norm.
Guess what? It’s not.
Standard billing for attorneys is “hourly,” meaning by the hour, in “tenths-of-an-hour” increments— meaning every 6 mins, we bill you more. Attorneys will have an “hourly rate,” and track these hours for you for each “matter”— i.e. the project they are working on for you. This applies to obvious things like contract drafting or editing documents, but also to phone calls or those emails back and forth.
There’s also support staff. Paralegals or assistants may be billing to your matter as well, for everything from setting up documents to minor drafting to photocopying. And a lot of times, photocopies, staples, envelopes, postage, “messenger services” (yes, these still exist) and faxes can cost money. And you’ll get to see it in detail on your bill 😐
All of this is fine, and many attorneys operate this way— but you just need to be aware of it before you commit to working with a lawyer. Because those little expenses can add up, and it needs to get factored into your budget.
Heads up, though: there are some things that may never be a flat fee. Some of the more common non-flat fee matters are typically things like 1) litigation (a lawsuit) 2) mediation/ arbitration, 3) business sale/ purchase, 4) negotiations. That’ because matters like these will usually be very fact/ party dependent, and can take 4 minutes or 4 years, depending on the opposing party/ opposing counsel/ political climate/ area of the country/ direction of the wind. A flat fee here might be in the $30k range just to cover our (lawyer’s) bases. And that helps…. no one.
BONUS TIP: Find out how they want you to pay your bill. Many lawyers have come into the 21st century and allow credit cards, but some prefer checks or advance deposits only. Find out if they allow payments online, or if you have to mail back your invoice (groan). Ask if they provide payment plans for large sums.
Get a lawyer who knows contracts AND the Courtroom
You can write 1000 contracts, but if you haven’t been required to enforce them, how do you know if it’s a good contract or not?
Great question! Which is why I truly think it’s important to find a lawyer who has experience enforcing contracts in the courtroom. This is because what goes into a contract has a huge effect on your rights in a courtroom. And while this may seem obvious, it rears its head in some not-so-obvious ways that can effect when, how, and how much you recover if you sue someone.
This is also important because if you’re represented by an attorney who only drafts contracts, and you need to sue someone/ someone is suing you, you’re stuck at square one— you have to find a lawyer who will go to court with you. And you will have to pay them to analyze the contract that was written by the other lawyer, meaning you’re essentially paying extra. Not the most thrilling expense.
Find out who will really be Doing the Work
If you hit it off with your attorney and feel like they get you, make sure they are the one who will be doing the work on your matter. Many times, work will get pushed to another associate— or worse, to a “Partner” (read: expensive, older attorney) who charges more. Simply ask about this— and tell them what you want!
Now I’m taking off my lawyer hat and getting back to the “wanna-be-stay-at-home-dog-mom” norm. Remember: if you need an attorney, CALL ONE. This blog does not serve to give legal advice, only education on certain principals. Never get legal counsel from the internet.