After you get the names of several good prospects (see Finding Lawyers to Review or Negotiate Your Lease), shop around. If you announce your intentions in advance, many lawyers will be willing to meet with you briefly at no charge so that you can size them up and make an informed decision.
When you meet, explain why you're there—you are about to begin negotiations on a commercial lease and want the lawyer to review the landlord's draft and possibly accompany you to negotiation sessions. To help you decide whether to engage this lawyer, you'll need answers to the following questions.
While most lawyers who work frequently with small businesses will almost certainly know a great deal about commercial leases and tenancies, there may be some exceptions to the general rule. It pays to inquire specifically about the lawyer's knowledge of commercial leases.
If not, will the matter be given to an associate? If so, how much supervision, if any, will there be? Obviously, you don't want to engage a highly qualified lawyer, only to find your lease shunted to a brand-new associate who's just learning the ropes.
Be sure you understand how the lawyer charges for services. (Paying a Lawyer to Review or Negotiate Your Lease discusses various fee arrangements.) Comparison shopping among lawyers will help you avoid overpaying, but only if you're comparing lawyers with similar expertise. A highly experienced small business lawyer may be cheaper in the long run than a general practitioner who charges a lower hourly rate. The experienced small business lawyer should be able to come up with good answers and advice faster than a generalist.
Probably the most common complaint against lawyers is that they don't return phone calls, respond to faxes or email messages, and are not available to their clients when needed. If every time you have a question there's a delay of several days before you can talk to your lawyer, you'll lose precious time, not to mention sleep. So be sure to discuss how fast you can expect to have phone calls returned and how you can contact the lawyer in an emergency.
Chances are that a lawyer who represents both commercial landlords and small business tenants has the knowledge to do a good job for you. On the other hand, you may want to steer clear of lawyers who represent landlords almost exclusively. They may be less willing to go to the mat for you if they worry that their reputation in the landlords' community may suffer.
Once you have the names of several lawyers, you can learn more about them in the Martindale‑Hubbell Law Directory, available online at martindale.com. This resource contains biographical sketches of most practicing lawyers and information about their experience, specialties, education, and the professional organizations they belong to. Many firms also list their major clients in the directory—an excellent indication of the firm's practice areas. In addition, almost every lawyer listed in the directory, whether or not the lawyer purchased space for a biographical sketch, is rated AV, BV, or CV. These ratings come from confidential opinions that Martindale‑Hubbell solicits from lawyers and judges.
The first letter is for Legal Ability, which is rated as follows:
The V stands for Very High General Recommendation, meaning that the rated lawyer adheres to professional standards of conduct and ethics. But it's practically meaningless because lawyers who don't qualify for it aren't rated at all. Martindale-Hubbell prudently cautions that the absence of a rating shouldn't be construed as a reflection on the lawyer. Some lawyers ask that their rating not be published, and there may be other reasons for the absence of a rating. For example, a new lawyer may have excellent skills and high ethics, but be too new to the legal community to be known among the local lawyers and judges.
Don't make the rating system your sole criterion for deciding on a potential lawyer. On the other hand, it's reasonable to expect that a lawyer who gets high marks from other business clients and an AV rating from Martindale‑Hubbell will have experience and expertise.