While it’s tempting to use lawyers only when problems arise, it’s often wiser to proactively establish a relationship with a lawyer who can assist you with preventive measures. You may call your lawyer only once or twice a year, but this is time and money well spent if it helps you avoid costly litigation.
Here are some of the activities and transactions for which it often makes sense to consult a lawyer:
- negotiating a lease
- preparing contracts for trainers who use your facility
- terminating an employee
- changing your business structure
- establishing a procedure for employee background checks
- expanding your current business and/or acquiring other businesses
- dealing with trademark, copyright and business branding issues
- entering into long-term contracts with major service providers (IT services, apparel vendors, equipment maintenance, etc.)
Both the lawyer and the client (i.e. the fitness manager/owner) benefit from establishing a relationship before problems arise. It gives the lawyer or law firm an opportunity to learn the nature of the client’s business. And it gives the fitness manager/owner a sense of comfort and familiarity when stressful situations arise. When you’re selecting a lawyer or a law firm, consider the following.
Seek Out Referrals
Just as when you’re seeking good fitness professionals, often the best sources are word-of-mouth referrals. Obtain leads by talking with other fitness facility managers or attending local business seminars. You can also get lists of names from your local chamber of commerce or your state or county bar association.
Specify the Type of Lawyer You Need
Generally, it’s most cost-effective for you to affiliate with a lawyer or firm that can address all of your business’s legal needs. Finding this complete coverage is not always possible—but lawyers are professionally obligated to inform you if the work you’re requesting is outside their area of expertise. For example, the lawyer who reviews your contracts and negotiates your leases may not be suitable to handle a dispute over intellectual property or business branding. However, perhaps someone else in the firm can do it.
Know Your Objectives
When you set up an appointment, be as specific as possible about your needs. Bring written summaries of incidents and backup documentation to your meeting. You’ll be asked to provide the names of all individuals and businesses that are involved in the matter for which you’re seeking legal counsel. The law office will perform a “conflict check” to make sure that it can represent you and that it has not represented the opposing party in a related matter.
Lawyers typically charge by the hour, so do as much preparation as you can in advance to reduce the lawyer’s time (and your bill). Some lawyers also offer flat-fee or project-based services. If this type of billing is available and you wish to use it, ensure that the project is clearly defined. Be sure you understand the billing consequences of exceeding the project’s scope. For example, if a lawyer charges a flat fee for negotiating a lease at a new facility, does the fee also include representing you in a lease dispute? What about advising you on whether you’re in compliance with various lease provisions during the lease term? These are matters you should discuss with your lawyer. It’s also fairly common for lawyers to request payment up front in the form of a “retainer.” They may hold on to this until the end of the representation, or they may draw from the retainer as fees are earned.
Explore Staffing Alternatives
Not all projects require expensive lawyers with lots of experience. A junior attorney or paralegal at a law firm can perform certain tasks at a lower billable rate. Virtually all law firms have websites where they post extensive professional biographies of their associates. Educate yourself in advance about whom you would prefer to have work on your matters.
Prepare Your Documents in Advance
It is generally much more cost-efficient for a lawyer to review and edit a document rather than compose it from scratch. For example, suppose you’re looking to acquire another business and you have already been in extensive negotiations with the seller. Prepare a detailed memorandum that summarizes the deal points and lists any questions you have; then share this document with your lawyer. It can serve as a useful checklist to ensure that the lawyer knows all of the facts and issues. It can also be a springboard for identifying potential issues or problems. Ideally, it can provide the basis for the contract terms between you and the seller.
Read the Contract
The scope of representation, the fee structure, details about any “retainer” and the terms of representation are generally set forth in a lengthy, detailed “engagement agreement.” Read this document carefully. If something does not reflect your understanding of the arrangement, ask that the agreement be revised before you sign it.
Be on Top of Billing
Lawyers generally bill for their services every month. The bill you receive should contain a concise written description of the nature of the services performed and the costs of those services. If you read your engagement agreement carefully, the bill should contain no surprises. If you believe the bill is not a fair reflection of the work that was performed, or if you believe that you are being charged for expenses you did not agree to, raise these concerns with your lawyer immediately.
It’s essential that you keep your lawyer informed of changes in your circumstances. For example, state and federal employment discrimination laws apply to businesses with a certain threshold number of employees. If your business is growing rapidly, that information is critical if you’re asking your lawyer for human resources guidance. Furthermore, if you’re being represented by counsel in a litigation matter, the judicial proceedings involve many deadlines and pressures. Litigators often handle multiple cases at a time, and they depend on clients to provide accurate and timely information and documentation. This material is essential for the best presentation of your case. Plus, both the lawyer and the client can be sanctioned by the court for noncompliance.
What If You Change Lawyers?
If you decide you need to change lawyers or law firms, you are entitled to receive all your documentation from the former firm. The firm you’re leaving is entitled to keep a copy of the documentation for its records.
Lawyers are required to adhere to rules of professional conduct. If you believe your lawyer has engaged in dishonest or unethical behavior, you have the right to report the misconduct to the local bar association.
Look Ahead Rather Than Back
Countless times I have represented clients in disputes over contracts, deals and employment matters where 20/20 hindsight is in play. A few hours’ of lawyer time in advance can save you and your business years of headaches in the courtroom.
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