With over 1.2 million licensed lawyers in the United States, you probably know at least one or two--whether they are members of your family, your closest friends or just acquaintances. When you're conducting an attorney search within your network, as a small business owner looking for legal advice, it can be tempting--from both a cost and efficiency perspective--to want to work with someone you know personally.
I spent a few months interviewing small businesses, and my findings were right in line with this: 90% of the small business owners I interviewed turned to lawyers in their personal networks to help with legal matters for their businesses.
Small business owners told me they looked to friends and family members because:
- it saved time searching
- friends and family members often gave them discounts
- they could trust their friends and family members to produce good work.
These are certainly understandable reasons for small business owners to reach out to their personal networks for legal help. However, the many reasons to be cautious about this type of arrangement are worth considering--and in some cases, the risks may outweigh the benefits.
Attorney Search: Hmm...Who Do I Know That's a Lawyer
This is perhaps the most common first thought when you realize you have a legal need, whether it's for business or personal reasons. Capitalizing on your existing network is a common (and often very successful) practice, however, there are instances in which this may not be the case. Limiting your attorney search to only those within your network also in turn limits the benefits and results you are seeking.
Your Lawyer Friend
If you needed glasses, you probably would not ask a cardiologist for advice, even if that doctor were a friend or family member. Your cardiologist friend might be able to give you preliminary advice on what is causing your vision troubles (after all, they did graduate from medical school), but you would certainly speak with an eye doctor for your major questions and concerns. A friend sets a great foundation for preliminary questions but the results a good attorney search should present you with the opportunity to continue the conversation with someone better informed and experienced in the specific area of your legal need.
Finding the Right Type of Lawyer Matters
Law is no different when it comes to finding the right lawyer. Even though all lawyers have attended law school and passed the bar, lawyers tend to naturally specialize in the type of work they do most often once they begin practicing. Nevertheless, the small business owners I surveyed asked their lawyers to perform a huge variety of services – from reviewing contracts to incorporation to providing legal advice on how to collect from a non-paying customer. Even though your sister, cousin, or high school classmate’s husband may be completely capable of drafting your sales contract, asking him or her to do this kind of work might require many more hours of research if he or she does not specialize in sales contracts. The results of this friends and family-limited attorney search could end up costing you more money if they bill by the hour--even if they cut you a great deal and work as efficiently as they can.
In addition to efficiency considerations, a lawyer who focuses on drafting contracts, for instance, will be familiar with many more contracts dealing with a wide range of situations than your friend who specializes in criminal law. The lawyer who specializes in contracts might be able to warn you of potential pitfalls of a certain clause or suggest additional contract terms more easily than an attorney who doesn’t typically draft sales contracts.
An Outsider's Perspective Can Be Valuable for a Business
When doing an attorney search, another advantage of hiring an outside lawyer outside the scope of your existing network is that a fresh pair of eyes can be extraordinarily valuable to a small business. In the course of helping you with a legal question or task, an outside lawyer will learn about your business and may be able to offer advice about changes or improvements that could save you money or help you prevent future legal troubles. A friend or family member you’ve known for years might not be able to see the forest from the trees as easily as someone who is learning about your business for the first time and can offer suggestions for improvement that those who know the business too intimately might not have considered.
A comprehensive attorney search will help you find the right attorney for your legal need.
Don't Ruin Your Friendship
A final issue that small business owners should consider before hiring a friend or family member for legal tasks is the possibility of seriously straining these close relationships. It is often easy for friends to gloss over their expectations of one another, assuming that they both understand what the other party means. This can lead to misunderstandings – about everything from scope of work to what you’re paying for that work. Such misunderstandings can strain friendships and cause family tension post your attorney-client relationship.
If You Decide to Hire a Lawyer Friend Versus an Outside Lawyer
If after conducting an attorney search outside your circle, the right fit for your legal needs was right in front of you the whole time, keep in mind that working with someone in your personal network can, of course, be a lucrative arrangement for both parties--but if you do decide to go that route, make sure that person is working within their usual practice area and that you are clear about financial expectations.
Have you hired a friend or family member as a lawyer before? Share your experience with us in the comments.