How And When to Find a Good Attorney For Your Company

Can you go it alone, or is it time to call a professional?



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Sooner or later, it's going to happen to everyone. So experts and small business owners alike agree: Form a relationship with a business attorney before you need one.

Dana Matthews, partner at Matthews Jones & Hawkins

SCOTT HOLSTEIN

If you're in business, chances are you've already dealt with a situation where you needed an attorney — whether you know it or not. From incorporation to employee I-9 forms, the advice of a competent legal mind can save you money, worry and time in the long run.

"A large amount of small businesses fail," says Michael Jones, partner at Matthews Jones & Hawkins, a multi-service legal practice in Destin. "But you have to be able to take the risk — because nothing risked is nothing gained. And small businesses have the same [legal] protections as anyone, even GMC and Ford."

Jones explains that sometimes small business owners (SBOs) don't fully understand that the legal framework of business law means most any business transaction can be designed to protect the SBO's own interests and allow the owner to take the risk necessary to grow their business.

"The number one concern of a SBO is personal liability," Jones says.

The right legal partner and advice gives owners peace of mind, because they want their personal liability to end at their family — they don't want to put their loved ones (and personal wealth) at risk for the growth of the business.

Shane Fischer, an attorney and president of Shane E. Fischer, P.A. in Winter Park, Fla., agrees. "Whether it's reviewing vendor contracts, leases or representing you in a lawsuit, you're really only hiring an attorney for one reason, to protect your business from loss," he explains. "Alternatively, if loss is unavoidable, [your attorney] should seek to minimize the damage from a lawsuit."

So, if you're the SBO looking for an attorney, do you start with the phone book? And how do you know when you need to find the right legal partner?

Brothers in Arms

Matthews Jones & Hawkins deals with hundreds of SBOs, from real estate to banking to retail and professional services. According to partner Dana Matthews, there's one common denominator among them all: Solid legal advice on the front end makes for a better outcome in the long run.

By and large, Matthews notes, "Clients don't understand contract language and that ends them up in a dispute. A handshake deal ain't papered and isn't enforceable."

Understanding that verbal agreements are not appropriate in business is something the "gentleman business owner" in Northwest Florida often learns the hard way.

Lila Jaber, a shareholder at the Tallahassee office of Gunster, provides perspective from both a legal and SBO standpoint. "The right attorney, especially with a pre-existing relationship, is better equipped to act quickly to help with acquisition paperwork, incorporation and business filings, business structure and finding the appropriate employment structure."

Insulating these issues with legal representation actually mitigates the exposure a small business has to lawsuits and disputes, she explains. Essentially, getting it right the first time is your best defense against costly and potentially disastrous legal situations.

Mark Bonfanti, a labor and employment attorney with Gunster, points out that when seeking a business attorney SBOs should keep in mind that general [legal] practitioners are not the best suited to fit corporate needs. "It can be a potential pitfall to hire an attorney who is unfamiliar with the business region and workforce," he explains.

Justin Meyer of Meyer and Associates, Counselors at Law, PLLC, practices in New York, New Jersey and Florida. He agrees that finding an attorney familiar with your business is ideal.

"You want an attorney who knows your business," he says. "Not one who is first learning how everything is done when you are trying to get a deal finished."