A process server bursts into the office on an otherwise quiet morning and serves you with papers in a lawsuit. You open the envelope, read the first few paragraphs, and that's enough! You stuff the papers in a bigger envelope and dash off a note to your attorney: "Defend me!" This common practice is guaranteed to at least double the cost of the initial analysis of the dispute.

Business owners use their lawyers in a wide variety of matters with significant financial consequences, ranging from lawsuits, contract negotiations, regulatory advice or litigation, and securities matters to alternative dispute resolution. Despite the cost and importance of these matters, owners and executives often pay a high price by using legal services inefficiently.

In the case of the quick emotional response to notice of the lawsuit, for example, the initial legal costs could be cut substantially if your transmittal letter also said: "I will deliver a memo, tomorrow, on the background of the lawsuit with copies of all correspondence and related documents." That small step, if done "in-house" is more efficient and less expensive than using the lawyer's time to ferret out the details.

In an ideal world, your note would end with, "My plant manager (or bookkeeper, etc.) knows the details behind this matter and has been delegated to work with you on this."

The point is: A little bit of planning, good communications and clear goals are among the keys to a cost-effective relationship with your lawyer, especially when confronting urgent matters. Here are five tips for working like a pro with your lawyer and making sure he or she does likewise.

Set Goals Up Front. A lack of clear goals means your lawyer may do expensive, unnecessary work. For example, when your company is sued, do you want your lawyer to try to settle the lawsuit as reasonably as possible or to fight every disputed issue to the bitter end? Without clear instructions from you, the lawyer may risk a malpractice claim if he or she doesn't raise every issue and defend against every risk.

As new matters arise, you need to spend "up front" time with your lawyer, clarifying and detailing your goals. Just as you set goals for each department in your company, spend time doing the same with your lawyer when a new contract negotiation, refinancing or lawsuit arises. This is easily the most common area of weakness in businesses' relationships with legal counsel.


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