By Shaun Restorick-Barton, Law Squared Associate - Startup & Corporate
Every client/lawyer relationship is different and most of the time things run pretty smoothly however we’ve all heard the bad lawyer jokes or have a friend who has had a terrible experience of working with lawyers. I’d like to change the conversation people are having about lawyers and have taken some time to distil the top 10 tips to help you build a strong, cost-effective and sustainable relationship with your legal team.
We at Law Squared often hear that lawyers are the handbrake to happiness, and this makes us sad.
A client-lawyer relationship shouldn’t be combative around costs, expectations (or missed expectations) and misalignment of views. A relationship with your lawyer is one you should be proud of, one you rely upon and one you take much happiness and comfort knowing you have a good lawyer as part of your team.
1. Find a lawyer who ‘gets it’ or at least gets you.
Find a lawyer that understands your business or if you are a startup; the startup space. This will help you and your lawyer get cracking on the work and take up less of your time and money in “learning” the ins and outs of the industry you operate in (or worse, what a startup even is).
Spending time with your lawyer to ensure they “get you” is important before taking that crucial decision. All lawyers should offer an initial consultation without charge. This will allow you to assess the way the lawyer responds to your queries, their understanding of the issue/prospect at hand and will allow you to build confidence (or confirm) whether the lawyer and the firm are the right fit for you.
2. Clear Communication.
Issues in communication (or lack thereof), is the most common complaint received from law societies in relation to client-lawyer engagements. In a world where we are becoming increasingly interconnected and reliant on technology and speed, understanding the next steps, aims and roles of any client-lawyer relationship is critical.
Any lawyer will tell you that clients who:
Give clear instructions;
Are prepared and organised;
Don’t skimp on the details; and
are their favourite, because it allows them to get straight on the tools and do their best work.
It is really important to be upfront and honest with your lawyer - the more they know about your business, your team and your strategy, the more effective they will be at providing their time and services to you in a cost-appropriate manner.
3. Let them do what you are paying them to do - help you.
This is so important, you are paying your legal team to do one thing, take care of your legals and to act in your business’ best interest! Tips 4, 5 and 6 below all support this underlying tip of letting lawyers help you.
Whilst you may feel that doing part of a certain transaction or drafting your own terms for your lawyers to review might be “quicker and cheaper”, the reality is, it often costs more in time and money for a lawyer to re-work this for you. It is the lawyer’s role to help you and to address a specific problem or forward plan for your business needs.
The more you can do to include your lawyer in discussions, negotiations, strategy planning and business growth objectives, the greater relationship you will build and the greater insight your lawyer has on your business and its operations.
4. Don’t engage in side-negotiations without telling your lawyer.
This happens so often. Let me give you an example.
Your lawyers are busy preparing documents for a transaction you are about to enter into based on your initial instructions. They are pretty chuffed with their work and send it to you for approval. You are pretty busy and give the documents a cursory glance before emailing back your approval. Your lawyers send these documents to the other side and within minutes, they get an angry call from the lawyer on the other side saying that the documents don’t reflect the agreement. This is because their client agreed to 5 other things over a number of conversations with you that you either didn’t include in your initial instructions or agreed to later and forgot to pass on.
Now the lawyer on the other side is telling their client that either:
You are trying to take advantage of them;
Your legal team are useless;
You don’t have your act together; and/or
They should pull out of the transaction.
The time, effort and cost required to fix the documents and regain the trust of the other side can be huge.
5. Speak to your lawyer before agreeing to a deal/offer.
This is really important! We understand that negotiations ebb and flow, and when you start to build momentum towards a deal, it can be really exciting. The risk here is that you start agreeing to elements of the transaction that have not previously been discussed with your lawyer. Nine times out of ten this won’t be an issue – that tenth time however, will be a doozy. We have unfortunately seen clients agree to terms that they cannot possibly satisfy because of the company structure or previous contracts they have in place. This has destroyed a few deals in the past.
6. Read the documents they send to you and take their advice onboard.
This is like going to a doctor with a curable disease and then not taking the medicine. Seeking legal advice or having professional documents prepared is step one of the process - reading through, understanding and following that advice is critical for you to get the value of your investment. However, you should absolutely challenge your lawyer and be sure you understand the advice and question the advice given, however please don’t ignore the advice and make an informed decision about accepting or rejecting that advice/recommendation.
The next two points work for all service providers, not just lawyers:
7. Talk about costs and your budget on day one (and keep the conversation going).
The best approach when managing your legal spend is to be clear with your prospective lawyer about your expectations, goals and most of all, budget. In addition, be honest about what you want to achieve by engaging with a legal advisor. Is it mentorship and guidance at every turn; or is it simply the preparation of the documentation necessary to continue to run your business?
8. Have realistic expectations - Rome wasn’t built in a day.
Be clear with your lawyer about when you need the advice or documents and try not to leave it to the last minute. We all want to be treated like the only client on a service providers books, but unfortunately, this is never the case. Unless you are happy paying a premium for a lawyer to drop everything to complete your urgent work, plan ahead and engage with your lawyer as early as possible.
9. What is the true value to your business?
Think about the value of the advice or document prior to speaking to a lawyer. Is this going to be your sole client facing document where all of your income will be generated, or all commercial risk managed? If so, this is pretty important to get right and therefore, a worthwhile investment to get right. Just because you can download a cheap document online, doesn’t mean that document is right for your business (9 times out of 10 it isn’t).
10. Size can be everything.
In a perfect world, people would never have disputes, they would always pay their invoices on time and all contracts would be two pages long. As we have not yet created this utopian society, contracts will still need to contain clauses for the occasion when the unicorn you bought turns out to be a boring old horse with a toilet roll stuck to its heads.
Last but not least…
Lawyers are not magicians, sometimes things just aren’t possible or legal.
To round this out, lawyers want to be helpful (mostly) and sometimes due to bad terms, ancient legislation or just things not going to plan, they have to be the handbrake to happiness.
With that in mind, if you try to apply the above tips when you engage a lawyer, you are likely to have a much smoother, cost-certain and beneficial working relationship.
Who knows, you may even make a friend and trusted advisor for life.
At Law Squared, we partner with passionate entrepreneurs and businesses who need our technical help and expertise in many areas. We’d love to have a chat with you, so feel free to drop us an email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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