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How to Interview a Potential Lawyer

Conference meeting microphones and businessman

Selecting a lawyer for representation is a major decision and should be the result of careful planning. Unfortunately, both companies and individuals often choose representation based on a personal recommendation without any further research.  Just last week, I got a panicked call from a good friend who was on the verge of tears as she began in her search for a divorce lawyer. She was really confused and wondered: How she could choose between the different lawyers recommended by her parents and friends;  If she should meet with each lawyer; or What she should ask when she speaks to them.

I understand how difficult hiring a lawyer can be.  As General Counsel to several tech companies, I have hired dozens of lawyer and law firms around the world.  I have also had to retain lawyers to represent me personally in trust and estate, family law and real estate matters. Oftentimes, I am approached for personal referrals by friends and clients when they need to hire a lawyer. In addition, several times a month, potential clients evaluate me as they determine whether to retain our firm.  These potential clients often fail to ask vital questions before selecting counsel.

In my last post, I spoke broadly about how to build a team of legal advisors.  In that post I gave an overview for selecting counsel, but here we will focus on the key component of selecting a lawyer – the interview.  Let’s assume you are a CEO looking to hire a lawyer to represent you in negotiating your employment contract with a new company.  As discussed in my last post, you have already spoken to other CEOs, you know about lawyers they have used and have also researched them on LinkedIn.  In addition, you have spoken to your primary family lawyer (who I refer to in my last post as your “Personal GC”) and have narrowed your search down to three lawyers you want to interview.  Below are some of the questions you should ask in the interview.

Experience and Expertise

Do you have expertise in the area of law I am dealing with? Here, you are trying to evaluate specific expertise in the area you are dealing with and how the lawyer acquired this expertise.  In our example, the follow up questions you should ask include:

  • Do you have expertise in the area of employment law, specifically executive compensation?
  • How many years have you practiced in this area?
  • How did you acquire your expertise in this area (training from a firm that also has expertise in this area or were you self-taught)?
  • Are you a recognized expert in this area? For example, some state bars offer certification in certain practice areas and there are other organizations which recognize lawyers for their expertise.
  • Have you ever written or spoken on this topic?

The mistake I often see friends make when selecting counsel, is that they incorrectly assume that just because someone is a lawyer they have worked with before or is highly recommended by a friend, that lawyer is also an expert in the issue they are dealing with.  Don’t make this mistake – you can save time and money by hiring a lawyer who is an expert in the issue you are facing.

Do you have extensive experience representing clients who faced the same legal issues I am dealing with and are similar to me? Here, the focus should be experience with the type of client rather than the area of law.  In our example, the client is a CEO in need of an employment lawyer. Oftentimes, employment lawyers specialize in representing only individuals, and some only represent companies (though some lawyers represent both).  While an employment lawyer who generally represents companies in employment litigation (as most large firm lawyers do) has expertise in employment law, they may not have experience representing an executive.

Representing a CEO as opposed to a company can be different in that a senior executive is most likely to have different needs and expectations than a corporate client.  For example, executives often have different expectations when it comes to client service because they are dealing with legal issues personally (and thus live with them 24/7).

Other areas of similarity that may be important (depending on the legal issue) can include:

  • net worth
  • income
  • geographic location
  • age
  • sex
  • occupation

For example, if you were looking to hire a divorce lawyer or a trusts and estates lawyer, the type of lawyer you would hire would differ if your net-worth was $1 million as opposed to $100 million.

Can I speak with some of your former clients who you represented? Possibly some who are similar to me and dealt with the same issue I am facing?  This is a crucial question which I always ask potential lawyers, and one which I encourage potential clients to ask me when they are evaluating our firm.  If the lawyer responds by saying such information is confidential and he or she cannot provide it to you, I would consider that a red flag and continue your search.  When I am asked that question, I request the permission of the former client first and then respond.  As discussed above, you should ask to speak with a former client who mirrors your situations as closely as possible.  For example, if you are looking to hire a lawyer to help you negotiate your employment contract to be CEO of a pre-IPO Internet company in Silicon Valley, you should ask to speak with a former client that the lawyer represented in negotiations with a private technology company (as opposed to employment negotiations for the CEO of a large public entertainment company or where the client was a company as opposed to an executive).

Questions to ask about working with the lawyer

At the outset of the engagement don’t be shy about asking questions that relate to hiring and working with the lawyer.  Here are the basic ones:

How much time do you expect this to take (or “Can you provide me with a budget for this engagement”)?  When I hire a lawyer, I am more interested in the lawyer’s best guess of how many hours the task or matter will take than the lawyer’s hourly rate (though that is important too).

No lawyer will give you an exact budget because the time can be affected by things outside of the lawyer’s control (such as difficult opposing counsel), but the lawyer should be able to give you a range of hours.  You can also ask the lawyer to let you know once you hit the estimate (for example, if the lawyer tells you the time to prepare your trust is 3-5 hours, you can ask her to let you know once she has spent 4 hours).  In my own experience, I see clients overly concerned about the hourly rate as opposed to the amount of time.  I would prefer to hire a true expert in the area with a higher hourly rate than a less experienced lawyer with a 20% lower rate, but who takes 4 times longer to do the same thing.

Are you open to alternative fee arrangements?  An alternative fee is any other way to pay a lawyer besides the old standard hourly rate.   When I hire counsel, I often like to know what the cost will be so I will push for a flat fee if that is possible (some engagements do not allow for them).  Flat fees work best for specific types of legal projects.  For example, if you are hiring a lawyer to draft a trust and he says the time could range from 3- 6 hours at an hourly rate of $500/hour, you may propose a flat fee of $1,700 and negotiate from there.

Recently, there has been great deal of criticism in the news over the billable hour.  Just last week, there was a great editorial in the New York Times entitled “The Tyranny of the Billable Hour.”  This editorial was in response to a lawsuit brought by a former client against a large law firm where the client alleges gross overbilling.

Timing and availability.  At the outset of every engagement, you should determine when the lawyer will be able to begin work on your matter and how long it will take.  This is key to make sure the lawyer can meet your timeline.  Unfortunately, lawyers and clients often have issues around timing: clients can have unrealistic expectations on when the lawyer can begin work or how long something may take and sometimes lawyers take too long to get around to focusing on your matter.  Communication is key here to avoid misunderstandings down the road.  Issues related to timing are also a reason to select your lawyer early as opposed to searching for a lawyer at the last minute (like trying to find a lawyer to hire on Friday afternoon to advise you about something on Monday morning).

Who will work on my matter? You should find out if the lawyer you hire will actually be the person working on the matter or if someone else will.  Questions to ask include:

  • Are you the person who will be handling this and doing the work on my behalf?
  • If not, who will and why?
  • If I have an issue, can I speak with you?
  • What is the experience of the lawyer who will be doing the work if it is not you?
  • Will I be paying for that lawyer to learn or is he or she experienced in the area and working with clients like me?

What is the best way for me to reach you? Are you available only during business hours?  Are you willing to give me your cell phone?  Are you OK with me texting you (many firms have rules preventing clients from texting because they cannot keep an easy record of such communications). When can I expect you to return my  phone calls and respond to my emails?

Why is the retainer so high? Many lawyers require a retainer that will be placed in their client trust account.  Don’t be shy about asking how the lawyer determined the amount of the retainer.  For example, if the lawyer is doing work for you that should not exceed 5 hours of his time, the retainer does not need to be equivalent to 10 hours of time.   You can also propose that the retainer be limited to a certain amount and once the lawyer’s time exceeds the retainer you will replenish it.

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5 Key Steps to Build a Personal General Counsel (Personal GC) Team of Legal Experts

teamworkWelcome to Personal GC where I plan on sharing practical information you can use in your personal life when confronted with issues related to law, business, risk management, and personal finance. Many of the posts here are drawn from my experience of serving as general counsel to several technology companies, as well as my experience in counseling founders, entrepreneurs, senior executives, and ultra-high net worth families in Silicon Valley.

For this first post, I wanted to address one of the most important things to consider as your wealth grows–building a team of trusted advisors. At the very least, this team should consist of attorneys, a financial advisor, and an accountant. While this post will focus primarily on the legal component of your team, I believe that some of these principles can also be applied to finding other types of advisors. Whether or not you’re one of the Silicon Valley elite, anyone can adapt and apply these 5 key steps when building a team of legal experts:

1. Start Early — Don’t Wait Until You Need a Legal Team

Unfortunately, most people don’t hire a lawyer until there’s a pressing need to do so. Trying to find a lawyer in a rush makes it extremely difficult for you to evaluate your options properly; when you’re in a rush, you’re less likely to take the time to consider whether someone actually meets your needs in a lawyer, resulting in settling for someone because they happen to be available at the time. Not only that, but you don’t want to find out that the person you want to hire is unavailable because you waited until the last minute.

One huge advantage of developing a relationship with a lawyer early on is the ability to be proactive. For example, if you’re a founder of a pre-IPO company, you may be able to receive favorable tax treatment on some of your equity through certain types of estate planning vehicles that have to be created prior to the IPO. By evaluating your legal options ahead of time, and establishing a team of lawyers before you need them, you can ensure that you’re ahead of the game when it comes time for the IPO.

2. Build Your Legal Team Around the Expertise You Need

Big companies regularly do this by hiring different outside counsel based on the legal issues that they’re dealing with: such as Patent, Corporate, Employment, and Trademark Law. Just like any company, a wealthy person or family will have a wide range of legal needs. Many people make the mistake of thinking that one lawyer (or even one law firm) will be able to address every possible legal situation. However, this is likely not the case–no one firm or lawyer can be everything to everyone. It’s best to start by identifying your core legal needs, and then select the best lawyer to advise you on that area.

It’s likely that your needs will change on a regular basis, so building your team and choosing the right lawyers to retain will be an ongoing process. Be sure to constantly reevaluate what your legal needs are in order to:

  1. Ensure you’re aware of when to bring on new members to your team as necessary.
  2. Keep your current experts up to date on the issues you’re dealing with.
  3. Give your team the information they need to help you strategize and get the right advice.

3. Select a “Quarterback” For Your Core Legal Needs

A few areas of core legal expertise that most newly wealthy people need include:

  • Estate Planning: For the creation of a will, primary trust, real estate trust, and creation of LLCs to hold other real property or investments.
  • Corporate Law: To review corporate documents related to venture investments and advise you on equity issues.
  • Employment Law: To ensure compliance with state and federal laws related to domestic employees, such as nannies and assistants, and also to counsel you in your future employment negotiations.
  • Real Estate Law: To deal with land use issues and related laws when building or buying property.

You may find that one law firm meets most of your needs, or choose to work with several firms. Either way, you should select one lawyer as your “quarterback” for all legal matters–your “Personal GC,” if you will. This lawyer does not have to be an expert in all areas, but he or she should be the primary legal advisor who helps you find the other legal experts you need and assists you in managing them once you’ve retained them. I’ll cover how to effectively manage your team of lawyers in a future post.

4. Ask For Recommendations From People You Know

Without a doubt, we’re all more likely to trust recommendations from family, friends, and acquaintances; and the same goes for finding a lawyer. Ask for personal referrals from the people you know well and trust in your First Degree (people you know personally) and Second Degree (friends of friends) Networks. While it’s always easy to ask people in your First Degree Network for recommendations, mining your Second Degree Network is a little more difficult unless you make good use of LinkedIn. Believe it or not, I actually use my LinkedIn as a primary source for searching my Second Degree Network whenever I need to hire experts in a certain field.

Assuming you are already connected on LinkedIn to the people in your First Degree Network, you can simply use the search box at the top of LinkedIn’s site and type in a keyword for the type of lawyer you’re looking for (i.e. “corporate law,” “real estate law,” etc.). This will generate a list of lawyers based on the degrees of connection from you. LinkedIn will also tell you how you know each person in your Second Degree Network, and you can then contact those people to ask them what they know of the lawyers you’re considering.

5. Interview Former Clients Similar to You

From my experience, most people do a poor job of interviewing their lawyers. This isn’t surprising given that lawyers are intimidating, and so is the law, so we tend to give them the benefit of the doubt. At a minimum, however, you should confirm that the lawyer you’re considering is an expert in the area you’re seeking counsel for, and that he or she has advised clients in the past with a similar background and need as your own. You should then ask to speak with at least three of those clients, and then contact them for a detailed conversation regarding their experience.

It might seem like a lot of work, but it’s important legwork that you need to do if you want to ensure you’re hiring the right lawyer for your team. After all, would you hire someone to your company without ever interviewing them properly or checking their references? I thought not. In a future post, I’ll cover the types of questions you should ask when interviewing the lawyers that you’re considering, as well as what you should talk to their references about.

Go Out and Build Your Team!

As you can see, building your legal team doesn’t have to be a difficult and anxiety-ridden process. By taking these steps ahead of time, you should be well on your way to building your legal team. In the next couple posts, I’ll cover how to interview lawyers before you hire them and the process for effectively retaining and managing your team of attorneys.