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Looking For Law in All the Right Places

Dealing with lawyers ranks up there with Internal Revenue Service audits and the dentist's chair. However, in the waste business, lawyers can be a necessary evil, as they handle acquisitions, initial public offerings (IPO), employment issues, governmental enforcement actions and public/private sector debates.

However, most waste companies are too small to afford a full-time staff attorney. Even the largest waste companies have reduced the size of their legal departments significantly over the past few years to reduce costs. For many companies, outside counsel (a lawyer not on the company payroll) often is necessary.

When considering whether to retain a lawyer, a waste company professional first should determine whether there is an immediate problem requiring legal assistance. Employment and safety issues often can be handled using existing company resources and expertise, or other outside consultants. However, if legal services are needed, you must decide who to hire, what needs to be done and how to prevent the legal fees from costing more than the problem itself.

It is critical to hire a lawyer with expertise in the specific problem your company has. If you hire an employment lawyer to handle an IPO, you'll end up paying for his learning curve. Instead, get referrals from other business owners, interview a few candidates and narrow the choices to one or two lawyers. Also, ask for references.

The size of the law firm is of minor importance unless your problem requires the resources of a larger firm.

Keeping Costs Down Once you have found your lawyer, how can you avoid an unexpected $40,000 bill for what you thought was a $10,000 issue? Discuss your specific goals and how to achieve them as early as possible. This should discourage unnecessary research or costly motions not essential to your case.

Ask your lawyer to send you a letter that estimates the total cost of his expected legal services and states that the total cost will not exceed a certain amount without your prior written authorization. The letter also should include a schedule of deadlines for updates concerning the status of your case and an estimate of when the work will be completed.

The Environmental Industry Associations (EIA), Washington, D.C., uses this approach when it retains outside counsel.

Although most lawyers bill at an hourly rate - some up to $400 per hour - plus expenses, others are open to alternate fee arrangements. For example, some lawyers will charge a fixed amount for a project, or reduce the usual hourly rate if they are assured a certain amount of work. Some law firms also will charge lower rates for court cases in exchange for a bonus if they win.

Another way to reduce legal fees is to limit the number of people who communicate with your outside counsel. Each time someone from your company calls your hired attorney, you probably will be billed for the phone time. Appointing one person as your primary contact with the outside counsel should reduce legal costs.

Also, take advantage of technology to save time and money. Exchanging documents and information with your attorney via e-mail can expedite a project and reduce costs.

Bill Me, Please Ask to see bills monthly, and review them carefully. Are you being billed for dinners or secretarial overtime? Are you being billed for copies, faxes and other direct expenses at cost, or is your lawyer charging you more and profiting from the difference?

If you feel that billed items are excessive, ask for clarification. Don't be shy about asking for a reduction in fees, especially charges that relate to direct expenses. The legal industry has become more competitive and customer-service oriented and lawyers may be willing to compromise.

After cost, the second biggest complaint about lawyers is failure to communicate in a clear, concise and timely manner. Too many attorneys still respond to simple inquiries with lengthy, complicated legal analyses that confuse, rather than educate, the client.

Ask for clarification of your legal strategy. Supervise your lawyer to ensure that he is representing your needs correctly. For example, a change in your business needs may require that your lawyer pursue a different approach.

If you do not understand your legal strategy, you will be unable to determine this. Ask for status reports so you can communicate information periodically to others in your company.

Lawyers can help you and your company resolve difficult legal problems and provide counsel so that you can achieve significant personal, professional and financial objectives and success. But this only works if you manage them effectively.

If you are looking for a lawyer, these resources can help:

* Martindale-Hubbell: Available in public libraries, this index contains most U.S. lawyers.

* The American Bar Association and state bar associations: These trade associations can help match potential clients with lawyers.

* Trade publications: Lawyers frequently publish articles in trade publications.

* Referrals: Business people and/or lawyers are good resources.

* The Internet: There are hundreds of legal sites on the net, including law firm websites that discuss their areas of expertise.

The written agreement with your lawyer should specify what expenses you will pay. Some law firms may try and charge you for:

* Copying and faxing charges;

* Secretarial overtime;

* Computer and database use fees;

* Travel expenses;

* Meals; and

* Supplies.

Be sure you have agreed to these charges before you pay for them.