There are two professionals every business will need early on: an accountant and a lawyer. The reasons for hiring an accountant are pretty obvious–you need someone to help you set up your chart of accounts, review your numbers periodically, and prepare all of your necessary federal, state and local tax returns. The reason for hiring a business attorney may not, however, be so apparent. A good business attorney will provide vital assistance in almost every aspect of your business, from basic compliance and copyright and trademark advice to formal business incorporation and lawsuits and liability.

If you are being sued, it’s too late. Most small businesses put off hiring a lawyer until the sheriff is standing at the door serving them with a summons. Bad mistake. The time to hook up with a good business lawyer is before you are sued. Once you have been served with a summons and complaint, it’s too late–the problem has already occurred, and it’s just a question of how much you will have to pay (in court costs, attorneys’ fees, settlements and other expenses) to get the problem resolved.

Any lawyer will tell that it’s easy to get into court, but very difficult and costly to get out. Also, most lawyers would agree that while nobody likes to pay attorneys’ fees, the fee a lawyer will charge to keep you out of trouble is only a small fraction of the fee a lawyer will charge you when you are in trouble.

What to ask when hiring a business attorney.

Don’t be afraid to ask direct questions about a lawyer’s experience. If you know you want to incorporate your business, for example, ask if he or she has ever handled an incorporation and what business entities work best for your business needs.

Your business attorney should be something of a legal “internist”–one who can diagnose your problem, perform any minor surgery that may be needed, and major surgery if needed. No lawyer can possibly know everything about every area of law. If your business has specialized legal needs (a photographer, for example, may need someone who is familiar with copyright laws), your attorney should either be familiar with that special area or have a working relationship with someone who is. You shouldn’t have to go scrounging for a new lawyer each time a different type of legal problem comes up.

Your attorney should be somewhat familiar with your industry and its legal environment. Be wary, however, of attorneys who represent one or more of your competitors.

Your attorney should be willing to take the time to educate you and your staff about the legal environment of your business. He or she should tell you what the law says and explain how it affects the way you do business so that you can spot problems well in advance.

Do you like this person?

Don’t forget to follow your instincts and feelings. You should be able to communicate openly and freely with your attorney at all times. If you feel you cannot trust a particular lawyer or you believe the two of you have different perspectives, keep looking.

Be prepared.

Before you meet with or call your lawyer, have the necessary documents with you and know exactly what you want to discuss. Fax or email needed documents ahead of time so your attorney doesn’t have to read them during the conference and can instead get right down to business. And, refrain from calling your attorney 100 times a day.

Meet with your lawyer often.

Meet with your lawyer regularly. At first glance, this may not seem like a good way to keep costs down, but you’ll be amazed at how much it reduces the endless rounds of phone tag that plague busy entrepreneurs and attorneys. More important, monthly meetings (even by phone) can save you substantial sums by nipping small legal problems in the bud before they have a chance to grow.

Disclaimer: This post it is not intended to provide legal advice.

Written by Shareholder / Attorney Ryan Allen