Once you've found a few good prospects to review your business's lease you should meet with each lawyer. At these meetings, you can size them up and make an informed decision about who you want to represent you. If you announce your intentions in advance, many attorneys will be willing to meet with you briefly at no charge.
When you meet, explain why you're there: You're 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 attorney, you'll need answers to the following questions:
Lawyers are quite independent in the way they run their businesses. The experience will vary from office to office—and even among lawyers in the same office.
Unlike physicians, for example, who have insurance companies and the government monitoring virtually every move, lawyers are free from heavy-handed regulation. As a result, many choose to avoid bureaucratic paperwork, which they view as a time-consuming nuisance.
Old-fashioned as it might seem, the simple handshake is still widely regarded as an acceptable basis for establishing an attorney-client relationship. But not everyone is so casual. At the other end of the spectrum, where the interaction between you and your lawyer is more formal, you could find yourself handed multiple pieces of paper, such as:
If the lawyer doesn't hand you a sheet of paper laying out their fees and services, you should ask for one before you leave. It's best to have written documentation that you can refer back to so that you and your lawyer stay on the same page.
While most attorneys who work frequently with small businesses will be experienced with business leases and tenancies, there might be some exceptions to the general rule. It pays to inquire specifically about the lawyer's knowledge of commercial leases.
Ask them how many leases they've drafted in the past and how many negotiations they've been a part of. Find out if they've worked specifically on commercial gross and net leases.
Sometimes a lawyer will accept your case but most of the actual work will be completed by another associate or paralegal. If the attorney won't personally perform the work, 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 passed off to a brand-new associate who's just learning the ropes. Find out at the start how actively involved the attorney will be in your case. The answer can help you narrow down your list of prospects.
Chances are that an attorney who represents both commercial landlords and small business tenants has the knowledge to do a good job for you. On the other hand, you might want to steer clear of lawyers who represent landlords almost exclusively. They might be less willing to go to the mat for you if they worry that their reputation in the landlords' community could suffer.
Probably the most common complaint against attorneys is that they:
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.
If your attorney assures you that you'll be well taken care of but tells you very little about the specifics of how you'll pay for the legal service, ask for some information about fees during your first visit. Most lawyers who advise small business clients about a lease use one of the following two fee arrangements.
Paying your lawyer by the hour is the most common method. In most parts of the United States, you can get competent legal services for your small business for $150 to $250 an hour.
Most attorneys bill in increments, specifically in:
Understand that these are the smallest chunks of time that the lawyer will bill for, even if a given task actually took less time. For example, a lawyer who bills in six-minute increments will charge you for the full six minutes even though a particular phone call lasted only two.
If you're concerned about runaway hourly costs, you can ask the lawyer to agree to a "cap," or an upper billing amount. When the cap has been reached (or is near), the billing will stop and the lawyer will stop working—until you authorize more work.
You might have to ask for a cap if you run into an unusual snag that requires more hours of legal services than either of you anticipated. For example, if a complex environmental issue pops up during negotiations—involving, for instance, asbestos in your building or an underground storage tank—your lawyer might reasonably expect payment over and above the cap.
If your lawyer will be delegating some work to a less experienced associate, paralegal, or secretary, the delegated work should be billed at a lower hourly rate. Your fee arrangement should specify the rates for associates and paralegals if they'll be in the picture.
Sometimes a lawyer will quote you a flat fee for a specific job—for example, the lawyer might offer to review your commercial lease for $450. In a flat fee agreement, you pay the same amount regardless of how much time the lawyer spends on the particular job.
When an attorney is highly recommended by others and the flat fee is moderate, this can be a great arrangement for you. But if the assignment is open-ended—for example, it might involve extensive negotiations or a lot of redrafting—a lawyer won't agree to work for a fixed amount. Merely reviewing a lease is one thing, but negotiating and drafting one is quite another.
To secure a flat fee, dangle the prospect of more work ahead. Explain to the lawyer that your business is small with a limited budget. Especially if you're just starting out, mention that you'll have other legal needs in the future if your business succeeds. The possibility of more lucrative work in the future could persuade the lawyer to offer an attractive fee arrangement to you now.
Lawyers might charge you for more than just the value of their services. Typically, lawyers charge clients for costs that aren't included in the lawyer's normal office overhead.
These costs can be for:
Be sure to find out whether you'll be charged for itemized costs and, if so, what they are and how much you'll pay.
You should get all the answers to your questions in writing, if possible. It's particularly important to get the attorneys' fees in writing to avoid any later disagreements or misunderstandings. Once you've had your meetings and taken some time to review your options, you can make your final choice. The cheapest lawyer or the attorney that's been in business the longest isn't always the best. Make sure you consider all the above points before making your decision.