Legal Lode: Get Smart with Your Lawyer

Legal Lode: Get Smart with Your Lawyer

Make the attorney-client relationship a two-way street.

Is your waste company getting the best from its lawyer? Many haulers and facility owners pay too much for legal services and get too little in return. While the problem can be due to a lawyer’s questionable experience and efficiency, even a business that’s been using a reliable firm for years may still be troubled by what it gets for what it pays. In particular, a start-up company needs a delicate balance: containing its legal expenses without compromising the quality of the services it receives.

Whether you are sizing up a prospective lawyer for your business or just evaluating your current company lawyer, keep in mind that he or she should be able to:

  • Help you select and implement the form of your business organization – corporation, limited liability corporation, etc. – and assure ongoing compliance with state and federal filing and disclosure requirements.
  • Assist your effort to obtain favorable financing and credit terms.
  • Negotiate contracts and leases for land, buildings, trucks and equipment, and office systems.
  • Explain the tax consequences of proposed business transactions and initiatives, or refer you to someone who can.
  • Keep you abreast of current federal, state and local laws, as well as court decisions (past and pending) that affect your business operations and opportunities.
  • Handle any necessary litigation.

To get under way on locating the right lawyer for your business, talk with members of your local waste trade group or chamber of commerce, contact non-lawyer professionals (accountants, financial advisors) who regularly deal with lawyers, and consider referrals from lawyers who themselves are not looking for your business.

After you’ve assembled a short list of likely candidates, schedule an appointment with each prospect where you can find out the nature and size of the lawyer’s practice and that of his or her colleagues, the lawyer’s experience with similar businesses, the lawyer’s professional style, particularly how he or she communicates (legalese or plain English) and keeps you abreast of the various legal matters being handled, and last, but surely not least, fees and billing.

Speaking of fees, lawyers and law firms typically charge for these initial consultations. But, don’t think of it as money down the drain; if you’ve done a good job of weeding out the less qualified firms, chances are you’re going to hear something useful even during a get-acquainted visit. Some firms may even credit the consultation fee to your first billing statement.

Lawyers charge for their time and advice, depending on the nature of the work, in one of several ways:

  1. Flat fee paid in a lump sum or installments for a specific job regardless of how much time the lawyer spends on the work. Some clients pay a monthly or quarterly fee (retainer) that can cover phone calls, office conferences and meetings at third party locations, and review of some documents. As retainers tend to encourage a client to freely use a lawyer’s time, the business ultimately benefits. Retainer rates can be re-negotiated periodically to reflect actual usage.
  2. Hourly rate, which is a common fee option. Rates will vary depending on where the lawyer practices and his or her skills and experience.
  3. Contingent fees are attractive in collection cases and in some litigation matters. The fee is based on an agreed-on percentage of the amount recovered. The rate often is lower for a settlement negotiated early in the process and higher if the matter goes to trial.

Besides the fee for services, lawyers generally expect reimbursement for necessary out-of-pocket expenses such as photocopying and faxes, overnight courier, travel, transcripts of testimony and court reporters. Some firms tack on Westlaw/Lexis and other on-line research charges, but a growing number of clients say these costs should be part of the firm’s overhead and won’t be reimbursed.

[Next month: specially tailored fee arrangements and more]

Barry Shanoff is a Rockville, Md., attorney and general counsel of the Solid Waste Association of North America.

The legal editor welcomes comments from readers. Contact Barry Shanoff via e-mail: [email protected].

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