By Attorney Janet Portman
In all but the simplest deals, it's a good idea to hire an experienced real estate lawyer to help you negotiate your lease, or at least review it. While you may understand the meaning and significance of the clauses in the landlord's lease, that's no substitute for a legal analysis of the particular lease your landlord has handed to you. While it's true that hiring a lawyer will add expense and perhaps time to your lease negotiations, in the long run it can be worth it. Here are some of the important things a good lawyer can do for you:
In Using Your Lawyer During Lease Negotiations, we'll explain how your lawyer can help during lease negotiations. Here, we focus on finding one.
Most lawyers who don't specialize in real estate have only limited experience in landlord-tenant legal issues—and even those with some experience may know only about residential tenancies. So if you just pick a name out of the phone book or go to the lawyer who prepared your will, you may wind up with someone who's less than ideal for handling commercial lease issues.
Your best bet is to find a lawyer who regularly represents small businesses. These lawyers are used to working with commercial leases and the problems that come with them. They understand the ins and outs of business tenancies and can often suggest effective strategies that general practitioners or specialists in other fields don't know about.
It's a good idea to find a lawyer early in the life of your business. Even if you're a committed self-help type who does loads of things on your own, you're likely to need legal services from time to time. Someone who already knows your business plan, personal goals, finances, and everything else about your business will have essential background information when you come in with a legal problem. If an issue requires more specialized expertise than your lawyer possesses—you may need advice on a trademark question, for example—your lawyer can refer you to a specialist.
Don't expect to locate a good business lawyer by simply looking in the phone book, consulting a law directory, or reading an advertisement. There's not enough information in most of these sources to help you make a valid judgment. Lawyer advertising services operated by bar associations or commercial websites are almost useless, at least initially. Usually, these services make little attempt to evaluate a lawyer's skill and experience. They simply list the names of lawyers who have signed on with the service, often accepting the lawyer's self-serving assessment of skills and experience. Fortunately, there are some better sources, and some ways to use advertising services, that can result in informed choices.
People in your community who own or operate excellent businesses. These people obviously understand quality in other ways, so why not in lawyers? Ask other businesspeople who and how good their lawyer is. Ask about other lawyers they've used and what led them to make a change. If you talk to half a dozen businesspeople, chances are you'll come away with several good leads.
People who provide services to the business community. Speak to your banker, accountant, insurance agent, and real estate broker. These people frequently deal with lawyers who represent business clients and are in a position to make informed judgments.
People with businesses like your own. In some specialized businesses—software design, restaurants, landscape nurseries—it can pay to work with a lawyer who regularly represents clients in that area. Besides being familiar with the way the enterprise operates, this specialist should have experience with the types of legal problems common to the business. Sometimes specialists charge a little more, but if their unique information is truly valuable, it can be money well spent. Trade associations are often a good place to get referrals to specialists.
Other tenants in your new building. They may have used a lawyer in their dealings with your landlord and have come away feeling they were in good hands. You'll get the benefit of the lawyer's experience with this building and this landlord.
Many websites cater to lawyers eager to capture would-be clients who are using the Internet to find legal answers and/or to look for lawyers. These sites are fundamentally no different than their old-style, "Yellow pages" counterparts—they make no promises regarding the quality of the representation. Many will check to make sure that the lawyer is in good standing with the state bar licensing agency, but they typically do not do more.
Online legal advertising works one of two ways: The site may simply list lawyers in your locale and in the specialty you need; you browse their self-written profiles and contact the ones you'd like to speak with. Or, like on landlordtenantlawfirms.com, you type a legal question in a search box and receive answers from a few lawyers. You may choose to read more about the lawyers, and depending on what you learn, may decide from there whether to go further.
If you use an Internet advertising site to find a lawyer, you can still winnow-out the ones who are not appropriate for your situation. After collecting names (or obtaining an answer from a lawyer who responds to your question), follow the suggestions in Choosing a Lawyer to Review or Negotiate Your Lease for help in making a decision.
This article was excerpted from Negotiate the Best Lease for Your Business by Janet Portman