by Jonathan T. Howe, esq. | July 01, 2005

Often, the first time someone discovers the need for a lawyer, they are in an intimidating and sometimes frightful situation. To avoid such tension, it’s better to have a lawyer at the outset to keep you out of trouble, rather than try to find one when you’re already in hot water.
    The following will help you work with an attorney.

The Search
While you can turn to the yellow pages to find the names and phone numbers of many lawyers, the best way to find one trained in your specific needs is to talk to your fellow meeting professionals. Don’t be afraid to interview several attorneys.
    Search broadly. The best lawyer for you might not be in your community. Don’t let that concern you; a lot of legal work is done via phone, mail, electronically and, if necessary, through travel.
    Ask questions. Ask lawyers about their experience, the experience of others in the firm (will someone be able to effectively step in if they are unavailable?) and what other areas of law they practice. Ask what they know about your organization’s business. And always get references.
    Attorneys you are considering will have to run a conflict check to be sure their representation of you would not conflict with the interests of other existing clients.

The deal
After you have chosen a lawyer, work together to outline the basic terms and conditions of the relationship. Be sure to discuss a billing arrangement. Attorneys will work for a flat project fee, an hourly rate (with or without a cap), a retainer agreement or a combination of all three.
    Address extra services. In most situations, extraordinary matters such as litigation or a government investigation will be outside the scope of your basic agreement. Insist on being notified before the attorney begins working on a matter that is outside of that basic deal.
    Sign it. Once you have agreed on billing, the attorney should draw up an engagement letter for you to sign, outlining the basic charges, how out-of-pocket expenses will be handled and so on.

The Relationship
Once the hiring is done, be very open with your attorney. Your lawyer needs to know any significant issues that have occurred in the past. If you are changing representation, share the reason.
Meet the others. Who else will be working on your concerns? In most firms, the principal attorney will have others within the firm handle matters on your behalf. This should never be interpreted as ignoring your interests; rather, it is generally a more effective and cost-efficient way to meet your needs. If possible, you should meet everyone who might be working on your files.
    Communicate with care. In this day of electronic communication, beware of e-mail and faxes. It generally is better to call the lawyer first or send an e-mail requesting that a conference call or meeting be set up to discuss a particular matter. After that has been done, you and the attorney can decide on how further communications will be handled. Never put something in an e-mail that might come back to haunt you later.
    Pay your bills. If you have questions about fees or billing, don’t let the bill sit on your desk. Call the attorney and get the answers to your questions. If you expect the attorney to address your matters promptly, he should be able to expect you to pay the bill promptly as well.

    Be true. The relationship between attorney and client has to be based on mutual trust. Sometimes lawyers will fire clients and clients will fire lawyers when that bridge of trust is impaired, so attend to its maintenance.

Jonathan T. Howe, Esq., is a senior partner in the Chicago, St. Louis and Washington, D.C., law firm of Howe & Hutton Ltd., which specializes in meetings, travel and hospitality law. Legal questions can be e-mailed to him at[email protected].