Features

Legal Aid: Lawyering Up

Does your business need an attorney?
By Peter J. Lamont
March 04, 2011

Most business owners would rather go to the dentist than hire an attorney. Attorneys have the dubious reputation of being “blood suckers,” deal breakers and opportunists. And many business owners would rather go the “do-it-yourself” route when it comes to legal issues in order to cut costs on what they view as non-essential expenses.

Unfortunately, many “do-it-yourselfers” ultimately end up having to hire a lawyer to deal with a lawsuit concerning one of their homemade contracts or other “legal documents,” which they created with the help of legal software or the Internet. Typically, businesses don’t retain an attorney until they are in trouble and, as a result, pay through the nose for legal services. Additionally, because of time constraints, they do not research the attorney but rather rely upon the recommendations of friends or family. So what is a cost-conscious business owner to do? Does a business owner like yourself need an attorney and if so, when?


REASONS FOR HIRING

There are two professionals whose services every business will require early on: an accountant and a lawyer. The reasons for hiring an accountant are obvious. However, the reason for hiring a qualified business attorney may not be so apparent. A good business attorney will provide vital assistance in almost every aspect of your business—from contract creation, review and negotiation, as well as back office support and litigation prevention, to employment issues, licensing compliance, copyright and trademark issues and lawsuits and liability.

There is no substitute for a good lawyer. No computer software or Internet site can provide you with the knowledge, skill and experience provided by a qualified attorney. After all, you wouldn’t want a nurse performing major surgery on you, would you?

The time to hire a lawyer is when you don’t necessarily need one. If you wait until you do, chances are you’ve encountered a problem from which a qualified lawyer might otherwise have been able to insulate you. Now you have to deal with litigation expenses, which could range from $15,000 to above $50,000. Clearly, when it comes to your business, the old adage, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure,” is highly applicable.

When hiring an attorney, make sure he or she has experience in the design/construction industry and is well versed in all of its facets. Choosing an attorney who specializes in insurance law only, for example, will not benefit your design business. A qualified attorney should be able to provide you with counsel on every aspect of your business when needed. Shop around until you find the right match. It is important to note many attorneys who specialize in the design/construction industry are with small to mid-size law firms. Their rates will be significantly lower than those of mega firms.

Ok, so you’ve decided to hire an attorney, but what do you need him for? It is not necessary for an attorney to be involved with every aspect of your business. In fact, there is a good number of things you can do on your own. For example, if you are willing to put in the time, you can register and set up your business with your state without an attorney. Most state websites provide step-by-step directions concerning starting a business and obtaining a tax identification number.


WHEN TO USE

However, you should use an attorney to create, review and/or handle the following: your contracts and purchase orders; employee manuals; collection letters and guidelines;leases; subcontracts; state licensing; contractor registration and licensing; litigation prevention plans and procedures; trademark and copyright registration; insurance issues; sexual harassment policies; and employee training. This is certainly not an exhaustive list, but it should give you a good idea as to what aspects of your business should be handled by an attorney. Of course, all liens, arbitrations, mediations and lawsuits should be handled exclusively by an attorney.

Furthermore, use a qualified attorney to create a set of form contracts and documents for you, which could help eliminate contract litigation. You could pay an attorney a reasonable fee to create your contracts and be insulated from lawsuits, or you could draft the contract yourself and end up litigating, at high cost both in time and money to you, over unclear, unenforceable, and/or ambiguous contract terms. Retaining the right attorney for the right tasks can end up saving you thousands in litigation costs.

—Peter J. Lamont, ESQ., is a commercial litigation attorney with offices in Hawthorne, NJ, as well as Massapequa, NY. His practice focuses on the representation of small- to large-size companies in the building and design industry, as well as individual designers and architects. To contact him, email plamont@peterlamontesq.com.
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