Small businesses should take care in hiring lawyers
By Joyce M. Rosenberg
AP Business Writer
NEW YORK — Small business owners looking for lawyers or accountants need to approach their search with the same kind of care they’d use in hiring an employee — they need to be sure the professionals they hire are experienced enough to do the job and that they’re a good fit with the company.
Many business owners and professionals believe the best way to come up with the right CPA or accountant is to get a referral from someone you trust.
Ask plenty of questions
And, before you agree to work with a professional, ask plenty of questions and try to talk to other business owners who have experience with him or her.
Jeannette Boccini, a principal with LVM Group Inc., a New York-based public relations firm, said her company gets the names of accountants and lawyers through either networking or referrals, and then starts to research the professionals by interviewing their clients and reading their Web sites.
Of course, it’s critical to interview your prospects.
“It helps if there’s a face to face meeting — you’ll want to make sure there’s some good personal chemistry there,” said Fred Steingold, a business lawyer in Ann Arbor, Mich., and the author of several legal guides for small business.
You also need to be sure you’re getting the right professional for your needs. For example, Steingold said, a lawyer who works only with larger corporations might not be knowledgeable about the issues that small businesses face. The same can also apply to accountants.
Many small business owners look for a professional with solid experience in their particular industry.
“We ask, ‘Have you represented any companies like ours before? Do you know PR firms?’ ” Boccini said.
She said LVM also wants to know how big an accountant’s or lawyer’s practice is.
“It may make a difference in whether they treat us like big fish in a small pond or a minnow in the ocean,” Boccini said. “As a small business, we want someone to be sensitive to the needs of a small business — we may need some additional hand-holding sometime.”
Depending on what your needs are, you might require specialized services that not every attorney or CPA has, and that means you might have to seek out someone with a specialty, such as intellectual property law or dealing with IRS audits.
“A general business lawyer can help form entities like an LLC (limited liability company) help in drafting leases and contracts, buying and selling a business, but if you’re going to get into something more complex, you’re going to want to know a little more about their experience,” Steingold said.
Similarly, most accountants are likely to periodically go over a company’s books and prepare its tax returns. But you might also want a CPA who can help you with business planning.
It goes without saying that the discussion must include fees, and what services you can expect.
You want to be sure you don’t open a bill from your lawyer or accountant and find you’ve been charged for something you never expected to pay for. Boccini said some professionals will bill clients for even the shortest phone calls. That may or may not be OK with you.
Availability and coverage are two other issues a business should explore in an interview. If the accountant or lawyer is away or it’s a busy season like tax time, who will be available to answer questions or do work for a business? If the professional has associates, just who in the firm will be working with this client?
“You want to be sure you’re not relegated to the most junior associate,” Boccini said.
Another question important in the high-tech era: How does the professional communicate? By telephone or e-mail or both? Boccini recalled that she and her partner, David Grant, asked an accountant they were interviewing, “Do you have a BlackBerry or Treo?”
Hiring a professional is also something that shouldn’t be done in haste, unless you’re faced with an emergency of some sort. But even then, the process should still be undertaken with care to avoid disappointment and even disaster down the line.
“I don’t think these are rash decisions — you don’t want to be changing from company to company,” Boccini said.
But if it turns out you’re not happy with the work you’re getting, it probably is best to move on, and look for another professional.
Copyright 2005 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.
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