I often get calls from clients saying, “We haven’t talked it a while – I guess it’s good that I haven’t needed my lawyer in the past few years!” This statement perplexes me somewhat as I know our best work as lawyers occurs on the front end — the proactive side — of building the business. Yet lawyers are rarely thought of in this light. More often than not, lawyers are thought of as the “clean up” crew or possibly the final step in getting something formalized and documented.
In some cases, the business hasn’t changed much and the need for proactive planning actually was limited – nothing new or different occurred with employees, contracts, partnerships, or products. If that’s the situation, then the statement above is right – good thing you haven’t had to call your lawyer.
For most businesses, change is constant due to innovation, market conditions and opportunity. These businesses often engage their business coaches, CPA and insurance team to help them plan for these changes in their businesses and still, the lawyer is one of the last ones engaged, if not omitted entirely. This raises the question of what value the lawyer brings to the business – and as evidenced by how we are engaged by most businesses, lawyers bring very little value especially given the cost.
Your lawyer, though, should be a part of your core advisory team because we provide a unique way of thinking about the issues that differs from the CPA, business coach and insurance broker. Your lawyer should bring real value to the conversation by:
- Advising as to how the opportunity or plan fits into the business legally.
- Looking at the opportunity as to what risks the opportunity creates and how they can be addressed or mitigated in the relationship.
- Recognizing the path a dispute may take and incorporating the right tools to address those risks given the other tools, such as insurance, that you have in place.
- Keeping you in compliance with changing laws such as the recent mandatory sick leave law, safe scheduling, and ban-the-box.
This value, though, can only develop from a relationship between the business and the lawyer. If you engage your lawyer once every year or two to handle a single issue, the lawyer doesn’t know you or your business well enough to provide specific counsel that fits into your risk profile or your vision for the future of the business. I feel that businesses know, deep down, that they should have a strong relationship with their business attorney but don’t know how to engage without it costing them a fortune. Businesses should talk with their lawyer (off the clock) about how to engage together to bring more value to the business and how the business can have confidence that they’ll get value from the relationship through alternate fees and proactive communication.
Lawyers need to take a lot of responsibility for how clients engage with them. The model has historically been in favor of the lawyer with very little thought as to the client’s perspective on value. The lawyer has the knowledge and creates the solutions for the client. Often the client has limited understanding of what the lawyer has created or why it was created. It costs the client more to obtain an understanding, so they trust the lawyer has done his or her job and move on. Often, though, the attorney doesn’t have all the information or insights as to what the business really wanted or needed but just jumped into the work. The solution ultimately doesn’t work for the client and is paid for but not used in the business. This scenario simply reiterates the pattern of not calling the lawyer. Lawyers need to be more ready to provide value by offering fixed fees or general counsel pricing, understanding the business and owners, and being proactive rather than reactive in the relationship. These lawyers are out there (and more and more common). As a business owner, you should find one that really provides value for your business so you do call and you do build your business proactively.