June  2002

Behind The Counter

You and the Law(yer)
Following Guidelines When Dealing with Lawyers May “Save” You
by Lyle R. Hill

Customers can be tough. Suppliers will disappoint you. Bankers and accountants will drive you crazy. But lawyers are a breed unto themselves, and few things in your business career will be as frustrating as dealing with them. No matter how hard you try to avoid it, ultimately you will spend several hours of your time with your legal representative. There are good lawyers and bad lawyers, but there are far more bad lawyers than good ones. Unfortunately, it’s often very difficult to tell the difference.

New laws are introduced on an almost daily basis, and it’s impossible to stay current. As a good manager, you should find a reputable, dynamic and progressive legal counselor and let him handle legal matters. And as soon as you have found such a lawyer, please call me immediately (collect is OK this one time) and give me the name and phone number!

Further, lawyers are expensive and must be used with care. A few years ago, a friend told me about an experience that taught him the necessity for keeping an eye on his legal-meter. His lawyer called and asked if he had any tickets for an upcoming Chicago Cubs baseball game. My friend had season tickets, which he gladly offered to his attorney free of charge. His lawyer proceeded to make small talk for about 12 minutes, asking about such things as my friend’s opinion of the Cubs’ chance for a pennant that year. (How they could spend a full 12 minutes on this possibility still amazes me!)

Well, being suspicious by nature, my friend asked his accounting department to send him a copy of that month’s legal fees, and—you guessed it! The lawyer billed my friend $50 for the call he placed asking for tickets worth $48! The call was billed under the heading of “Miscellaneous Counsel and Advice/Phone Call.” Needless to say, my friend found a new lawyer shortly thereafter.

In light of all of this, I have come up with the following guidelines which I gladly share (for free):

When putting a lawyer to work, always be specific relative to what you want done. Preferably, provide a written outline of what is desired. Otherwise, you invite the same consequences that you would if you dropped your car off at the local garage and told the mechanic to check it over and to take care of whatever needs fixing. Believe me, he’ll find plenty!

Remember, the lawyer works for you. This is a hard fact for some otherwise astute business people to comprehend. Many actually are intimidated by their own lawyers, which is ridiculous. Librarians and driver’s license examiners should intimidate you, not lawyers.

You have every right in the world to question recommendations. No one is right all the time. If what is recommended or suggested doesn’t seem practical, get another opinion. Remember, too, not many attorneys are good business people. They just don’t always see things from a business point of view.

A neighbor of mine who teaches in an executive MBA program recently informed me that at least ten percent of his students are practicing attorneys. While some of them are contemplating career changes, many have come to realize that they need more true business education and training.

Remember, too, that lawyers specialize. You wouldn’t want to go to an eye doctor if you broke your arm, and likewise, you must pick the right lawyer for any given task. Construction law, contract law, union and employment law are highly specialized fields. Make sure your lawyer is an expert in the area you need. Don’t be afraid to use different lawyers for different needs.

You should scrutinize bills carefully. As much as I hate to admit this, I have a couple of very close friends who are attorneys. In moments of weakness, both have confessed to me that it is common practice at most law firms to “pad” their billable time summaries. In other words, a five-minute call gets listed as 15 minutes or .25 hours. (I read a study a few years ago that claimed most attorneys over billed as much as 25 to 35 percent of the actual time expended on behalf of their clients!)
Finally, never, ever admit to your attorney (or relatives) that you have season tickets to anything! 

HILL1 Lyle Hill works almost every Saturday “behind the counter” at Glass America, a dealer of windows, doors, glass and other products.


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