Knowing when to call a lawyer is not as intuitive as you might think
“Rich, there is some crazy B[eep], in here and she is acting a fool,” is what the voice on the other end of the phone said to me. It had barely even registered to me who was calling when I heard screaming and cursing in the background, and some thumps, and crashes that I couldn’t identify-but didn’t sound good. “What, you mean right now?! Hang up and call the cops for God’s sake!”
It was Sunday afternoon, and the frantic voice on the other end of the phone was a longtime acquaintance, new client, and smart, but inexperienced business owner. He’s had a storefront retail/service establishment for about the last year. When his business started picking up, he hired me to run a compliance check on his registration, licenses, lease and to redo his contracts, policies, employment agreements etc.
Usually, it is a safe bet to call your lawyer at the first sign of trouble. If it is not really a “legal problem,” then at least I can get you pointed in the right direction. HOWEVER, when your building is on fire, you call the fire department, when there is a person in your place ranting and raving, you call MPD. A few years ago, I even had a client call me on Thanksgiving to tell me that water was gushing through his ceiling. What am I supposed to do about a water leak at 9 PM on a Holliday? You call a plumber. (I don’t even own a pipe wrench).
These are a few examples of my clients calling me first when perhaps they should have bumped me a little further down the list. Proof that a little common sense and self-preservation instinct goes a long way.
Waiting too long, however, can turn a small problem into a bigger one.
By far, the bigger problem that business owners create for themselves is when they don’t call me as soon as a problem arises when it is small and manageable. Or better yet, when they see a situation that might turn into a problem so that we can take steps to prevent it all together. Instead, to save money, or embarrassment, or for a dozen other reasons, clients wait too long to consult with me.
As a group, entrepreneurs are resourceful, self-reliant, risk takers. These qualities make it more likely that they will try and solve legal problems themselves. Sometimes, because of their smarts or perseverance, they muddle through the problem. More often, however, their efforts end up turning a small legal problem into a big one.
For example, just last week I was approached by a business owner who said: “Rich, this woman sued me, she has no case, can you help?” “Sure,” I said. “Send me the papers and we can talk more after I read them.” The reply after a long pause “…um….well, it’s been going on since 2016, the trial starts next Monday.” WHAT?!
That is, of course, an extreme example, and most businesspeople, when served with legal papers, have the wherewithal to call for some help a short time after.
More often, business owners get themselves into hot water by being earnest. Like by sending an email, loaded with admissions and potentially harmful facts, in response to a notice from their landlord. The email then becomes a “landmine” once the dispute escalates, waiting to explode when stumbled upon.
As a general rule, the fire, flood and raving maniac examples are all things that you should discuss with your business lawyer after you make sure that you, your customers, and your property are safely out of harm’s way. For everything else, call your lawyer first and ask. It’s what he or she is there for. If you are afraid that you are going to get gouged with ridiculous legal fees just to figure out if something is really a problem, then the real problem is that you have the wrong lawyer.
It is not always easy to decide who to call when something has or is in the process of going wrong in your business, especially where you are in an industry that serves the general public. It is a balance, that requires judgment, which you will get more skilled at with experience. When you need guidance it is imperative that you have a lawyer whom you are confident can steer you right, at a fair price.