What Clients Want in a Lawyer

The following is a conversation between Scott Hughes, the chief operating officer at Visiam LLC, a renewable energy company, and the author, about the most important things a renewable energy company needs in a lawyer.
By Todd Taylor
Q. What one word defines what you want in a lawyer?
A. Passion. Entrepreneurs need to surround themselves with people who have a passion for the industry and their profession. Without that you are not bringing people to the party who share a common goal. As it relates to a lawyer, I believe that you need to align your company with someone who is not just there to bill, but truly cares about the profession, industry, and your company.

Q. How do you go about hiring a good lawyer?
A. I do not lead with the "How much do you bill?" question. If that is the most critical thing to you, you should look through the yellow pages for someone cheap to do basic legal work. Cheap rarely equals good work. Think of this from your own business standpoint. Do you want to be the cheapest with no regard for quality? I believe in first having a good attorney with whom you share business principles, industry knowledge and passion. Second, I believe that you hire an attorney to be an adviser and counselor, not just someone to draft contracts. If you find the right attorney, you will save your company in the long run, and create opportunities that add value, more than any squabbling over a bill or a cheap lawyer will ever get you.

When interviewing multiple lawyers, which I strongly recommend, go in with a list of questions about their practice, their views of and experience in the industry, and personal interests. I want to know about why they do what they do and how they got there.

Q. What do you expect an attorney to do for you?
A. Again, the reason I hire an attorney is not to just draft contracts, but rather to help guide my business through unfamiliar situations. My favorite quote is from Malcolm Forbes, "Too many people overvalue what they are not, and undervalue what they are." I believe that this is applicable to my attorney: Guide us where you have skill, provide insight on the industry, counsel us on avoiding mistakes, and I think that he/she should complement the organization and should be approachable on multiple issues regarding the law, the industry and strategy.

Q. Do you think an attorney should help you find financing?
A. I don't expect it. With that said, they are there to be an adviser to the company and help in its success. Part of what I expect is to provide insight and access to a network of people and companies that can help my company. However, I hire an investment banking firm for financing. The attorney helps guide me through the legal issues related to fundraising and financing and if they can make an introduction that turns into something, so be it.

Q. What is the No. 1 thing you don't want in a lawyer?
A. One thing that I stay away from is a relative, friend, etc, of someone in the company. When someone says, we should hire so-and-so to be our attorney because he is related, I run. I have seen this fail more times than not. Look for someone who will represent the company not the personal interests of a shareholder, director or executive.

Q. I'd like to go back to your comment on how a lawyer should provide some added value.
A. I hire an attorney not just to draft contracts. Our chief executive officer, who has been in the industry a long time, said that there is nothing better than a good attorney, one who takes the time to understand the business and how a lawyer can help the business succeed. Lawyers who only read the statute and tell you what you can't do are virtually useless.

To this day, our chief executive officer talks about one of the attorneys that he had in the past who he respects and adores. Imagine a lawyer a chief executive officer respects and adores. You don't often hear that about a lawyer, and that's too bad and when you have a lawyer you can say that about, it's a great thing.

Todd Taylor is a shareholder in Fredrikson & Byron's corporate, renewable energy, securities and emerging business groups. Reach him at ttaylor@fredlaw.com or (612) 492-7355.