Legal help can be really expensive.
But, it’s one of those things that, when done right, will save you more in the long run than what it cost you up front. Finding the right legal help will steer your company clear of potential lawsuits, saving your hard earned cash for other money-making endeavors.
Anyone who has had the need for a lawyer understands the pinch of hiring competent legal help. Because most law firms charge between $250 and $700 per hour, it makes financial sense for some companies to hire a lawyer full time. But even that is a stretch for a lot of businesses, especially in light of 2016 salary predictions for mid range general counsel being between $111,500 and $217,750.
It’s not uncommon for business owners to wing it, thinking they’re okay not hiring an attorney to assist with general day-to-day guidance. This may work temporarily, but understand that there is a legal aspect to basically everything that a business does, and handling it alone is risky. Have employees? That’s employment law. Signing a new lease? That touches property and contracts law at a minimum.
I see businesses every day happily—but unwittingly—doing all sorts of things that could get them sued by an employee, customer, or other business. For me it’s like watching someone who doesn’t know they have a huntsman spider on their back. I calmly brush it aside, but on the inside I’m freaking out about what could have happened.
So don’t go at it alone, but instead protect your company and try a few of these crafty maneuvers to find and maximize your general counsel on a limited budget.
Tip #1: Barter
If you’re short on cash, try exchanging your service for the services of an attorney. You may find that your product or services is worth more than the money you would otherwise pay. If you’re a web developer, offer website redesigning or maintenance in exchange for a few hours of legal consultation. Attorneys might be willing to barter for services they were going to have to pay for eventually.
Earlier this year I needed access to a very comprehensive, but prohibitively expensive database for a project that I took on for one of my clients. I had used this web-based service a couple of years prior, so I knew both the product and owner pretty well. Needless to say, I didn’t have the available funds to pay the yearly membership fee in advance. So I sent an email to the owner asking for access to the database in exchange for a few hours of my time, which he happily agreed to.
From his perspective, he got “free” legal help because it didn’t cost him anything to allow me access to his database that already had thousands of users. In return, he received customized employee handbooks, non-compete agreements, company policies, and nasty-grams sent to delinquent account holders.
From my perspective, I gained a membership worth thousands of dollars and access to an awesome database that I use for (and bill) other clients. It only cost me a few hours of my time to put together a pack of documents that I routinely work with and have customized many times before.
Tip #2: Choose a non-traditional attorney
Before I went to law school, I thought of an attorney as someone who went to a four-year college, majored in pre-law, and then proceeded straight to law school for three more years.
When I actually started law school, I was surprised to see so many fellow students who were much like me—we had built successful non-legal careers, and were going to law school in the evenings to pursue our dreams of becoming lawyers. My classmates had backgrounds that varied from horse trainers and hospitality workers, to mechanical engineers and medical doctors.
Finding an attorney whose second career is law could very well work to your company’s advantage because they may be able to function in more than one capacity. If you need financial guidance in addition to general counsel, find a lawyer who worked in finance. Not only will they know business matters better than your average attorney with only law firm experience, they will be better able to roll their sleeves up and jump in to help where they are needed. And for small businesses with limited budgets, being able to wear more than one hat isn’t just a nicety—it’s absolutely crucial.
Tip #3: Hire from within
Surprisingly, lots of people have aspirations to go to law school and become lawyers. I can’t tell you how many conversations I have with friends, colleagues, and clients who tell me that their dream is to practice law. With so many schools that offer flexible law programs, becoming a lawyer is even more attainable than it was for previous generations.
If you have an employee who has expressed a desire to become a lawyer, you should encourage this and seek out ways to support their endeavors. If your company has a tuition reimbursement plan, that’s great, but if not, that’s okay too. You can support an employee in other ways by giving him time off or allowing him to leave at a reasonable hour so he can get to class on time. If you’re worried that the employee will ditch you once you’ve invested the company’s resources in him, you can always have him sign an agreement to stay in exchange for tuition assistance.
In four years, you will have a candidate for general counsel who is probably more loyal to you and knowledgeable about your business than any lawyer off the street. Knowing the law is great, but knowing what it looks like as it applies to your daily business routine is even better.
Plus as an added bonus, you’ll probably end up paying your newly minted legal counsel a rate much lower than hiring someone off the streets, especially if they will be sticking around based on an employment contract.
Tip #4: Use your leverage
Here’s a little secret that non-attorneys may not be aware of: Lots of lawyers hate working in law firms.
Many of the lawyers that I talk to who work in traditional law firms are tired of working 60 hour weeks to try and keep up their billable hours. They are tired of the rat race and are seeking more balance. Because of this, most of them covet in-house positions.
This could work in your favor because you probably have more negotiating leverage than you think. You can hire general counsel for a much lower hourly rate than you would pay a law firm, especially if your company supports family-friendly policies and work hours. A lower rate could be a reasonable tradeoff for an attorney seeking a better work-life balance, and a slower, more predictable pace than that of a law firm.
Also, keep in mind that you may be able to find cheaper help outside of your state. A lot of states allow attorneys from other states to act as general counsel for companies with either limited or no admission to that state’s bar. So depending on where your company is located, you may be able to find competent legal assistance from areas of the U.S. where attorneys are used to receiving lower rates. Websites such as Hire an Esquire allow you to post legal jobs across the U.S., temporary or permanent, and specify the rate you want to pay.
Tip #5: Encourage a social presence
When you find the right in-house counsel, encourage your attorney to write articles and blog posts pertaining to legal issues specific to your industry, or even issues that are interesting to your customers. Lawyers are used to reading, assimilating, and writing copious amounts of information, so writing a blog article every few weeks really isn’t a stretch.
Posting relevant, well written legal articles written by your company in LinkedIn groups can drive more traffic to your website. The blogs that I post in active LinkedIn groups literally increase my website traffic by about 10 fold, especially when members post comments and likes. More traffic to your site not only gets your company’s name out into the public, but also has the potential to gain more customers and directly impact your bottom line. Plus, talking about legal issues relevant to your line of business can give you some serious street cred as an emerging leader in your area.
Remember, your business is adept at creating innovative solutions to problems, so addressing day-to-day obstacles shouldn’t be any different. Try implementing some of the tips above to tackle the legal needs of your company creatively.