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.