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Ten Things Your Lawyer May Not Tell You

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(Photo: ©iStockphoto/Nikada)

Fred S. Steingold |

Ask questions to learn scope of legal services, aptitude of attorney

ANN ARBOR, Mich. — During the course of running your drycleaning business, you may find yourself in need of legal services. Your lawyer may not automatically tell you everything you need to know about these services, and if you don’t ask questions, you may be in for some surprises.

Here are 10 things your lawyer may not tell you—unless you ask.

“I’VE NEVER DONE THIS BEFORE.”

You’ve found some new space for your expanding drycleaning business. After stumbling through the dense verbiage in the landlord’s lease, you decide to have your lawyer review the lease before you sign. Smart move.

But what if your lawyer has never reviewed a commercial lease before? Will he or she volunteer that information? Maybe not.

Legal ethics don’t require a voluntary disclosure. They only require a lawyer to become competent in a legal matter before proceeding. In theory, a lawyer can get up to speed by consulting with a colleague, reading professional books, and attending seminars.

But, given a choice between a novice and a lawyer who has checked out 50 commercial leases, wouldn’t you be more comfortable with the more experienced one? If so, find out how much work of this type your lawyer has done.

“YOU DON’T NEED A LAWYER TO DO THIS.”

There are many law-related tasks you can do yourself—like getting a tax assessment reduced or suing in small claims court.

There are other things that can be accomplished by hiring non-lawyers who can work more effectively and charge less than a lawyer. For example, an accountant may be better and cheaper at sorting out a financial mess. A real estate broker may be better at negotiating a land purchase.

Some lawyers won’t tell you about less expensive options unless you ask.

“I CHARGE FOR FAXES, PHOTOCOPIES AND POSTAGE.”

When you’re paying a lawyer $250 or $300 an hour—or even more—you may be shocked to find yourself nickeled and dimed as well. But it happens.

Some lawyers bill for the faxes they send or receive, for the photocopies they produce, and for postage and long-distance charges. Don’t assume your lawyer will be absorbing these expenses as a part of doing business.

Get a clear understanding up front about whether you’ll be hit with these incidental costs.

“MY PARALEGAL WILL BE HANDLING THIS.”

Paralegals—also called “legal assistants”—play an important role in a modern law office. Rightfully so. They’re usually well trained and capable of handling many routine transactions.

But what if your lawyer is planning to let the paralegal do all the work? You may want to know.

For one thing, you’ll want to make sure the paralegal’s time is being billed at a substantially lower rate than the lawyer’s. In addition, you’ll want to make sure you’re comfortable with the amount of the lawyer’s supervision—or lack of it—that the paralegal will be receiving.

You may also want to meet the paralegal so you can have an effective working relationship.

“I’M ABOUT TO GO AWAY FOR SIX WEEKS.”

Terror can grip your heart when you call your lawyer to ask a follow-up question, only to be told, “I’m sorry. Ms. Jones is on a long trip to Asia and can’t be reached.” Reasonable access is a reasonable expectation, especially in today’s digital world. You’d like to know in advance if your lawyer will be out of touch for an extended period.

To avoid rude surprises, inquire about the lawyer’s travel plans, and who will be handling the lawyer’s clients in his or her absence. Ask to meet the back-up person, and make sure that he or she will be fully briefed about your legal situation.

“FIGHTING FOR A PRINCIPLE IS EXPENSIVE.”

If your chances of getting any real money in a lawsuit are somewhere between zip and zero, you’d like to know in advance—long before you sink thousands of dollars into a lawsuit.

Sure, you’d like to get even with the scoundrel who scammed your business, but it may cost you a bundle to duke it out in court—and you may still wind up empty-handed.

Ideally, your lawyer will give you a frank assessment of your odds of winning, your odds of collecting, and how much all of this will cost you. Sometimes the best advice is to put the matter behind you and forget about suing.

Some lawyers, however, may not level with you at first—perhaps out of fear that they’ll rile you if they suggest that maybe you don’t have such a great case. To get a straight story, you may need to ask the lawyer for brutally honest answers.

“I DON’T LIKE THIS KIND OF WORK.”

A lawyer who enjoys drafting corporate documents may abhor appearing at zoning hearings. A lawyer who likes to litigate may not like to take a matter to mediation.

You need a lawyer with a zest for your type of legal work. Someone who finds a certain kind of work distasteful may just go through the motions—not comforting when you need someone to aggressively champion your legal position.

But lawyers may be reluctant to refer you to someone else. They worry that if they do, they may never see you again. You can tactfully raise the subject by asking, “Is this really your cup of tea? Do you like doing this type of work?”

If you detect something less than enthusiasm in the lawyer’s response, follow up with, “Who in town specializes in these matters?”

“I’LL DO THIS FOR A FLAT FEE.”

Most lawyers do most work for an hourly basis—but would be willing to do particular tasks for a flat fee. Trouble is, they may not volunteer this information. They worry that clients may take advantage of a flat fee by making endless demands on their time.

Still, they may be willing to draft a business document or attend a meeting at City Hall for a flat fee. If you don’t ask, you’ll never know.

“I BILL IN QUARTER-HOUR INCREMENTS.”

That five-minute phone call to your lawyer may cost you $75. Why? Because your $300-an-hour lawyer bills in increments of 15 minutes. That’s something you need to know and discuss in advance.

Billing is not a precise art, but increments of five or six minutes seem much more reasonable than quarter-hour segments.

To avoid getting burned, ask about the units the lawyer uses in billing. Maybe you’ll decide not to call the lawyer’s office quite as often.

“I STOPPED LEARNING THE DAY I LEFT LAW SCHOOL.”

Some states don’t require lawyers to continue their education once they pass the bar—which means that a lazy lawyer may not be up-to-date on the latest legal changes.

A lawyer who ignores legal seminars or doesn’t read professional journals isn’t likely to brag about it. You may not find out until it’s too late that your lawyer was less than sharp on a crucial legal point.

Here’s where learning a lawyer’s reputation comes in handy. A lawyer who’s highly regarded by other lawyers in your community is probably doing his or her homework.

About the author

Fred S. Steingold

Hamilton, Judge, Schroer & Steingold, PLC

Attorney

 

Fred S. Steingold practices law in Ann Arbor, Mich., for the firm of Hamilton, Judge, Schroer & Steingold, PLC. He is the author of The Legal Guide for Starting and Running a Small Business and The Employer's Legal Handbook, published by Nolo Press.

 

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