Entrepreneurs and Lawyers

Top-notch advice from Jim Flowers, Executive Director of VT KnowledgeWorks.  A version of this post first appeared on So you want to launch a business…

Q: 

I just got a $3,000 bill from my lawyer that I wasn't expecting.   What should I do?

A: 

Above all, remember this.  Good legal advice is a good investment.  Time and again I hear sad stories of good companies seriously damaged, or even destroyed, by the fine print.  We all wear seat belts when we drive.  Your attorney is one of the seat belts of your business.

Unfortunately, unlike seat belts, attorneys are not simple to operate; and they do not come come with owner's manuals.  The good news is, however, that they are like computers.  They will do what you tell them to do – quite literally.  Clear and precise instructions are crucial – in writing.  And the instructions have to be clear to them, not just to you. 

If you tell your attorney to protect you from any possible danger, you will get a document for the ages, and a bill to match.  Seat belts do not protect us from infectious diseases.  Likewise, complex contracts cannot remove all business risks.

Here's what I do.

First, I do my homework.  The business deal belongs to me, not to my lawyer.  It's my responsibility to get it right.  So, I rough out the agreement I think I want, usually just with bullet points.  Then I ask my lawyer to review the points, to let me know whether they are reasonable, and whether there are any specific issues I may have overlooked.  That doesn't take long and doesn't cost much.  Sometimes I even specify the number of hours I want her to devote to the review.

Once the review is complete, and I have a complete list of bullets, I ask how long it will take and how much it will cost to create an appropriate legal document incorporating all the bullets.  I do my best to avoid open-ended work assignments for my lawyer.

Any request I make to an attorney is a work order.  Attorneys sell time.  The hourly price depends on the experience level of the particular attorney.  I try to remember that I am buying hours of work, just as if I were hiring a teenager to do odd jobs around my house.  So I set boundaries, in writing.

If I have a surprise, like an unexpected bill, I remind her of the boundaries.  Her firm can make a client service mistake, and they can also correct it.  But, if it turns out that I was the one who inadvertently modified the boundaries, because I gave bad instructions, I pay the bill.

My lawyer wants my business.  I want reliable legal counsel.  We work together to create a relationship that is mutually comfortable and sustainable.

You and your attorney can do the same.

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VT KnowledgeWorks is a unique growth enhancement program open to entrepreneurs in the New River Valley and beyond.  Acceleration center and incubation facilities are located in the Virginia Tech Corporate Research Center in Blacksburg, Virginia.  Programs for Members are divided into two categories according to the evolutionary status of the member company.  Pre-Launch program components are carefully constructed to help market-worthy ventures organize, formulate strategy, obtain outside investment, and launch in an efficient manner.  Enterprise class members benefit from emphasis on strategic support for ongoing growth, continuing intra-preneurship, and professional development for the corporate leader.

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VT KnowledgeWorks Global Challenge TrophyVT KnowledgeWorks has announced a Global Student Business Concept Challenge, August 29 – September 4, 2010, in Blacksburg and Roanoke, Virginia, USA.  The Challenge celebrates the energy and ingenuity of university students and their important contributions to the future of our global economy.  The name of the winning team, their university name, and their home city will be etched into the base of the VT KnowledgeWorks Global Challenge Trophy as a permanent tribute to their outstanding effort.  The winning team will earn a $25,000 cash prize.

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VT KnowledgeWorks sponsors include Attaain, Inc., BB&T, Handshake 2.0, Harris Office Furniture, Hodges, Jones & Mabry, P.C., Hutchison Law GroupLeClairRyan, Science Applications International Corporation (SAIC) and The Becher Agency (TBA).

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