How to Hire a Business Lawyer

If you're thinking about hiring a lawyer to represent your business, here's how you should go about it.

By , Attorney · Columbia University School of Law

Having the right legal counsel can help your business in many ways. Once you've determined that hiring a business lawyer (also known as a corporate attorney) would be both beneficial and economically feasible (see Business Lawyers: Do You Need One?), then you should employ a methodical process of selecting the right lawyer or law firm for you.

What are Your Company's Legal Needs?

The nature and objectives of your business will determine the legal expertise that is most valuable to you. For example, if you own a technology company, then you might be satisfied with a corporate attorney or firm that specializes primarily in intellectual property rights and licensing, even if they have little expertise in other areas of corporate law. If you run a more generic manufacturing or service business, then you might merely need a contracts expert to assist you with client negotiations, drafting and finalizing agreements, maintaining proper corporate records, and so forth.

To better define your company's legal objectives, you can ask yourself the following:

  • What legal guidance does my company need (regarding employees, contractors, government regulations, taxes, customer warranties, and so forth) in order to avoid future liability?
  • Where are there efficiency or competency gaps in the company's daily operations?
  • What are my short and long-term goals for the business?
  • Does the company need to raise additional capital?
  • Does the business need to lease or purchase any commercial property?
  • Does the business need to restructure its existing debt or capitalization?
  • Does the company need to acquire or dispose of any assets?
  • Am I considering a sale of the company or taking the company public?
  • Does the company need to create additional divisions or subsidiaries?

Clearly defining your company's needs allows you to proceed with your attorney search in a more productive manner.

Get a Referral From a Legitimate Source

The best way to narrow your search for a lawyer is to share your company's specific needs with a former or practicing lawyer, a trusted friend with experience hiring lawyers, or (ideally) someone who is both a lawyer and a friend. Competence, diligence, and trustworthiness are critical factors to consider when selecting legal counsel, and getting a referral from a reliable friend or attorney can maximize your chances of finding a lawyer with those qualities.

Ideally, you should get more than one attorney referral from your trusted source or sources. Unless your business is involved in a criminal or civil proceeding, your referrals will most likely not be litigation attorneys. While most people think of lawyers in the terms of what they see on TV (judges, juries, and courtroom drama), the fact is that courtroom litigators make up only a minority of all the different types of practicing attorneys. The best legal counsel to assist you in the day-to-day operations of your business, or with any specific business matter, will more likely be a transactional corporate attorney, who might not have any litigation experience at all.

Transactional lawyers have the business acumen to advise you in all aspects of business dealings, including forming your business, operating your business, developing a business plan, implementing business strategies, buying or selling a business, effectuating an initial public offering, winding down your business operations, and much more. Lawyers who specialize in mergers and acquisitions (M&A attorneys) can be particularly useful, even if there are no acquisitions contemplated in your company's foreseeable future. This is because M&A attorneys must have a working knowledge of multiple business considerations, including accounting matters, corporate governance, intellectual property, real property, environmental matters, insurance, and tax. This allows them to readily identify the expertise that is needed for your particular situation and either address the issue themselves or recommend the right legal expert for you. That being said, you should have confidence that your trusted source will recommend one or more attorneys to best suit your particular needs.

You can try to find a lawyer by searching online but you need to be careful and do some of your own research when choosing this way. One thing to keep in mind is that business lawyers specialize in numerous subcategories of expertise, so you need to make sure you find one that is the right fit for your needs. There are some helpful online lawyer directories, like, where you can search for a lawyer by location and practice area.

Do Your Research

After you've received attorney recommendations, you should then research each attorney and their law firms. The firm's website should include the lawyer's educational background, areas of expertise, years in practice, and any notable publications or transactions. More and more often, lawyers and law firms also have a social media presence that you can peruse, whether it be on LinkedIn, Facebook, Twitter, or the like. You can also review the website of an attorney's relevant state bar association for additional information. The state bar website should verify that the attorney is currently licensed to practice law and indicate whether or not the attorney has any disciplinary history. Lastly, you can conduct a simple Google search of the attorney's name to find out any other relevant details, whether positive or negative.

The Initial Consultation

With each recommendation, you should set up an initial consultation so that you can share the full scope of your legal needs with your prospective counsel. If possible, you should conduct this first meeting in person, and the attorney should offer to do so at no charge (note that if you ultimately hire the attorney, you should review your first invoice to confirm that it does not include a charge for your initial consultation).

The introductory meeting should serve many purposes. You should fully explain your business goals and the role that you expect your attorney to fulfill. You should ask as many questions as necessary to determine whether the attorney exhibits the requisite competence and sincere enthusiasm to adequately address your business concerns. People often describe their business as their "baby" because it often feels like the company itself is an additional member of the family. You need a lawyer who will treat your business like a member of your immediate family. Furthermore, you should have a rapport with your attorney that allows you to talk to them not only as a friend and trusted confidant, but also as a customer who expects a premier level of service. Respect breeds respect — and results. You both should use the meeting as a way to manage expectations. From your perspective, you should be sincere and direct about your general management style and the amount of time and attention you'll require from your counsel. Similarly, your candidate should give you as much detail as possible about how their attorney-client relationship typically works, how much they will be personally involved in the process, how much they might delegate to others, and so forth.

Agree on a Fee Structure

If you feel that your initial consultation with an attorney is going well, do not hesitate to bring up the topic of fees. This is a critical element that can either make or break a potential attorney-client relationship, and it's best to lay the cards out on the table early. Attorneys and law firms can propose a variety of fees structures, with sole practitioners likely having the most leeway and creativity. Depending on your company's needs, you can usually choose between a flat fee (either on a monthly basis or for a specific transaction) or an hourly fee. Note that litigators often agree to contingency fees whereby they risk working for free, but then earn a percentage of your civil award if your case is successful. However, this fee structure is generally inapplicable to transactional law representation. Also note that it is standard for attorneys to require a retainer prior to commencing any work for the company, so you should not take offense when the lawyer requests this. However, you can always take into consideration how aggressive the attorney is about the retainer, the amount of the retainer, and whether or not the attorney is willing to provide any initial services as a trial run prior to requiring any retainer.

Compare and Contrast

At the end of the day, choosing the right attorney for your business is more of a feeling. If you have any apprehension about a particular candidate, then continue your search. This is why it is optimal to consider multiple recommendations from your trusted sources and then choose the legal counsel who is the best fit for you and your business.

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