If you own a business, you’ll need a law firm to protect your interests. What do you look for? The key to finding a good legal match is to know what your company’s needs are now and likely to be in the future. As a business grows, its needs change. A start up software publisher may only need an intellectual property lawyer and someone to handle its incorporation. As a business grows, takes on additional employees and moves into its own building the owners will have to deal with real estate and employment law issues.

“The first thing is to decide if the business needs a headline grabbing national firm, mid-sized firm, small firm or solo practitioner,” says Lewis J. Pepperman, co-managing director of Stark & Stark, a 96 attorney law firm headquartered in Lawrenceville, NJ with offices in Cherry Hill, NJ and Philadelphia. “The law has become so specialized that most solo practitioners or small firms may not be able to handle many of the issues facing a growing business. Entrepreneurs have better things to do than look for a new attorney every time a different legal issue comes up.”

While the national firms with legions of lawyers and offices seemingly everywhere have the resources, they come at a price. Giant firms mean giant overhead, which a client pays for. For many businesses it’s overkill. “The client ends up paying for resources they’ll never use. If your business basically operates in New Jersey and Pennsylvania, it’s irrelevant if the law firm has offices in Beverly Hills and Atlanta.” Many mid-size firms have national capabilities, without having an office in every state.

For many businesses, a mid-sized law firms with 75 -100 attorneys makes the most sense from an economic and talent perspective. “Firms this size usually have been together a number of years and have built up a reputation. They have the depth and practice groups to provide representation in just about every area of law,” said Pepperman. “Firms such as Stark & Stark can do the same quality work as the national firms but at lower rates. The client pays for what they need.”

Pepperman advises business owners to thoroughly cross-examine their law firm candidates:

Are you familiar with my industry?
The first consideration should be the attorney’s legal skills and general experience. Is the person a quick study? Does the firm represent any of your competitors?

Who will be doing the day-to-day work on my business?
The senior partner may make the initial pitch for the business, but will have little if any involvement after that. Ask to meet the person who will actually be working on your business.

How will my business be billed?
Lawyers have become more flexible in negotiating fees. Don’t be afraid to ask for a flat fee or contingent fee on certain matters. What expenses are included in the fees and what is billed separately?

What can I do to keep my legal bills down?
Communication is the key. Don’t be afraid to ask hard questions. If it is helpful to you to receive statements twice a month, ask for it. Understanding what your lawyer is doing helps both you and your lawyer.

Will I be able to approve staffing on my business?
Make sure the experience and cost of the attorney is appropriate in relation to the value of the work being done. There are times when more than one attorney will be needed to work on a matter. Does that second attorney need to be a senior partner billing at top dollar or would an associate with a moderate level of experience fit the bill? Would you be better off with just one attorney assigned to the matter, rather than having layers of lawyers reviewing each other’s work? How many attorneys attend a deposition?

Does the firm explain legal matters in plain English?
Make sure that your law firm is willing to translate at no extra cost. If you receive a legal brief or memo, insist on a short summary… in plain English.

Looking for a lawyer is like seeking out any other business service. Do some research and don’t be afraid to ask questions. Know what you really need.