My First Business Disaster and Your First Business Lawyer - Christine Kane

As you are about to learn from my disaster story below, the worst time to try to find a business lawyer is when you really really need one.

Why?  Two reasons.

1 – Because you are emotional about your business, and

2 – Because your lawyer is not.

When it comes to legal stuff, you’ll go to drama. You will rage about “the principle of the thing!” And you will want to pick up the phone and shout stupid things into it.

Your lawyer will stick to the facts. She will know how to follow the letter of the law, how to wade through the boring legal crap – and most importantly how to guide you through the situation at hand.

[YAWN!] “Why do I need a business lawyer?”

Fair question.

Sometimes you need a lawyer for things you can’t predict.

In January 2012, the build-out on Uplevel World Headquarters was complete.  I had purchased the space the year before – and now many months of paying contractors was over.  Our team had moved in – and we were excited to get started.

Then, on the morning of February 9, I was heading to my office when my cell phone rang.  It was my contractor. He was crying.

Turns out, the pipes in the upstairs bathroom broke.  For 14 hours, hot water flooded the 3,000 square feet that was my newly designed offices. Everything had been destroyed completely. Uplevel World Headquarters was in shambles.

First Business Lawyer

This is the actual text exchange with my pal Abbie the morning of the flood.

At moments like this, you don’t think about lawyers. You simply think about emotions. But that’s just it.  This is the kind of moment where, even though I wanted to go fetal, one of my friends (thankfully) told me to stop the drama and call my lawyer. Pronto.

I did.  It was the most important move I made. And it was especially good that I already HAD a lawyer because he was able to act fast.

Long story short:  My lawyer quickly assembled a team of people to investigate.  In the first week of this investigation, it was revealed that the plumber had knowingly used faulty piping (too lazy to go get the right stuff) – and was busted for lying about it in front of the group of people in the room.

His insurance was responsible for the entire cost of the renovation. Four months later, we were back in Uplevel World Headquarters.

Lawyer: 1, Wildly emotional Christine: 0.

Look, you don’t want to live your life being scared of what may or may not happen in your business. But it’s good to have someone in your corner if something ever does happen.

Then There’s All the Other Stuff you Shouldn’t Try to DIY…

Your lawyer protects your business.  She manages less tangible but equally important aspects of your business like intellectual property, trademarks, contracts and lawsuits.

She also helps you with  things like writing client contracts, renting or buying office space, filing taxes and managing intellectual property. Your lawyer can give advice about your legal responsibilities if you’re forced to fire an employee.
Here are some situations when you might need to “lawyer up” and get some legal advice.

  •       You want to incorporate.
  •       A team member quits and starts soliciting your clients.
  •       A client doesn’t pay his bill.
  •       An investor approaches you about partnering with you.

Bottom line:  Your lawyer lets you stop stressing and wasting your precious time and start focusing on what really matters.

When do I need a business lawyer?

The big secret: Get a lawyer before you need one. This way, you can take the time to find the right lawyer and avoid problems that can come from rushing.

One of the biggest mistakes start-up entrepreneurs make is to attempt handling legal issues on their own to save a few bucks.  Not a good plan.  Do you cut your own hair?  Do you fill your own cavities?  Of course not.

For some reason though, just because you handle papers and words in other areas of your life, you convince yourself that legal stuff is about the papers and words, so you can just do it yourself.  Stop this.  Lawyers are experts. You are not.

How do I find a business lawyer?

  • Ask around for recommendations. Talk to other self-employed people or small business owners you trust to get their contacts.
  • Find someone local. Meeting and talking to someone in person helps you build rapport and avoid misunderstandings. You’ll also need to find a lawyer who can practice law in your state.
  • Meet with your top pick(s) before making a decision. Ask customized questions that will reveal whether they are a personality match for you, as well as having experience with your kind and level of business growth.

How do I know when I’ve found the right lawyer?

Just like your relationship with your significant other or your hairdresser, your relationship with your lawyer should have these 3 things.

  1. Communication (That’s Not Fear-Based).  Your lawyer needs to listen to you and communicate in a way you understand. Legal stuff is boring and complicated, and it’s their job to make it easy to understand. Make sure they explain your options and the best course of action in a non-condescending and non-fear-based way.  If they confuse you with “legal-ese” or they try to scare you about impending doom and gloom, walk away.
  2. Respect. Your lawyer is there to help you, and you’re paying them for this service. You’re in charge of your business, and they’re there to advise you. A good lawyer will give you a clear plan of action you feel comfortable with. They should also respect your time and have a quick turnaround time on questions and requests.
  3. Trust. You’ll build trust over time, but until you get to know each other better, trust your gut. If you feel like something’s off or feel pressured into something, speak up. Never feel embarrassed about asking questions, getting a second opinion, or asking for time to think before making a decision. It’s your business, not theirs.

If you made it this far in this article, then I’m proud of you!  Hopefully this means you won’t wait until you’re staring at your new underwater office to get a lawyer on your side.

No excuses. No procrastinating.

Let my story motivate you. Set aside the time to find a lawyer you can trust to handle and even prevent legal headaches for you.

  • Amy

    right on! I agree with you entirely especially the part about the lawyer being non-emotional. That was what has/is getting me through a really nasty employee termination. If it weren’t for my lawyer being able to look at the situation without emotion, I would have ended up in the psych ward. I can just hand off all of the requests for documents and phone calls to her. She provides stability in a very tense, emotional time.

  • Christa

    Christine – would you recommend getting more than one lawyer, each focusing on a different part of the business? For example, I’m wanting to expand my trademark, and add a second. I applied for my first trademark by myself and didn’t get approved for everything that I wanted – which would have probably been avoided had I started with a lawyer in the first place. But I imagine the trademark lawyer wouldn’t know law beyond their field of expertise. Do you use separate lawyers for different things in your business or did you try to find one that can handle most of your needs?

    • Christine Kane

      Yes, I do. I have a trademark attorney – AND a separate attorney who enforces the trademark (which is a whole thing in and of itself). The business attorney is local – and i am in touch with him (and her) more often.

  • Heléna

    Agree totally!

    I am so happy to have a lawyer that I trust and who can take care of all the bureaucracy in Spain. (Trust me, there’s nothing like it anywhere else on the planet!)

    In fact, I would not have dared make the decision to expand, if I didn’t know he was there to support me.

    Thanks Christine. Reading your blog is always a good use of time.

    Kind regards,

  • Adele Petersen

    Thank you!