The quality of the answer depends on the question

People hate to pay lawyers, possibly even more than they hate to pay accountants and dentists. First of all, a lawyer’s stock in trade is essentially words, and Americans in particular don’t like to pay for words, whether it’s for online news or advice about a great business idea. Secondly, questions to lawyers seem to result in a lengthy screed which doesn’t answer the question, followed by a short but hefty invoice. As a result, many US businesses don’t have an ongoing relationship with a lawyer, and some don’t use a lawyer at all. A study by Legal Shield (pdf link) suggests that 60% of small businesses with some sort of legal issue will struggle through without the assistance of an attorney.
There are some valid reasons for that. Lawyers and other professionals can be very expensive, and sometimes the results are – shall we say – less that satisfactory. You can eliminate some of that frustration and expense, however, by following a few simple rules:

  • When you ask a question, provide enough context that the lawyer can understand the underlying transaction in as efficient a manner as possible. Thirty minutes spent summarizing the steps which caused the problem (or opportunity), along with a few key documents, can save hours of lawyer time.
  • Make sure you are asking the right question. If you have a one-line e-mail which ends with “will I have to pay tax?” or “can I do that?” then you probably haven’t provided enough information (see above) and you haven’t asked the right question. You know enough about your business to ask the most relevant, specific question, so don’t make your attorney guess at it.
  • That brings up another point – there should be a clear answer to the question “who is your attorney?” It may seem strange to have “an attorney” when you don’t have a legal issue, but an attorney who understands your business can more readily (and efficiently) answer questions as they arise, since that attorney already knows some of the context. That and, by recognizing issues before they become problems, the attorney can save you significant legal costs down the road.
  • Be a critical – but fair – client. If you get an answer you don’t understand, ask the lawyer to clarify the answer. If you get an answer which doesn’t have an actual answer, or at least a concrete recommendation as to how to proceed, ask for one. If you don’t understand why the cost is what it is, ask for a detailed report.

I’m not going to pretend that all questions can be answered efficiently or cost-effectively every time, even if you follow the above steps. After all, the law is messy, with lots of potential conflicts and complications, and sometimes the very fact you’ve omitted is the one which is crucial to getting the right answers. That being said, if you’ve asked a well-thought out question and provided the necessary context, it’s fair to expect a well-thought out and relevant answer, since that’s what you’re paying for. If you’re still not getting good advice maybe it’s time for a new lawyer. Remember, though, that time you spend up front will pay significant dividends down the line.