Every construction business owner and executive’s plate is overflowing on a daily basis. That’s just the way it is. The last thing any of them need to add to their neverending to-do list is switch law firms. But every vendor is crucial to the company’s success. Sub-par performance is simply not acceptable, whether you’re talking about the company’s legal counsel, its accountant, IT consultant or the company responsible for cleaning the offices. If you have doubts about your legal counsel, here are the two biggest questions that come to mind:
- Is it the right time to change firms, and how do you know?
- How do you select a new law firm that is the right fit for you?
Reasons to make a change are as varied as the names on law firm doors. Some of the more common indicators include:
- Laziness—The firm just doesn’t seem to be motivated.
- Timeliness—They’ll get the job done, but on their time frame, not yours.
- Sloppiness—In legal work, like construction, attention to detail is everything. Sloppy work leads to more problems.
- Happy talk—The lawyers tell you what they think you want to hear, not what you need to hear.
- Personality conflict—You simply don’t like working with them.
- Excuses—They always have a reason for why they’re slow, sloppy or missing a deadline.
- Competence—Not all lawyers are created equal, and the work you need done just might not be in the firm’s wheelhouse.
So, let’s say you’re seeing one or more of these troubling signs, and you know you must make a change. You don’t want the changeover to be a huge time suck since the leadership team is already running at full capacity. And you want the switch to be as painless, smooth and quick as possible. How do you do that? The most important thing to do before letting your current counsel go is to first locate new counsel. Here are some important issues to discuss with any new law firm you consider:
- Specific experience—The new firm should have experience with the particular issues your company faces. Ask them to explain their experience in these issues. If they don’t have it, look elsewhere.
- Conflicts—Probe whether the firm has any client relationships that conflict with your company. They could be working with one of your competitors. Or with a plaintiff who plans to take legal action against you. All lawyers should do this first anyway, but it’s always good to confirm before you waste more time.
- Deadlines—Make sure you inform the prospective law firm about any upcoming deadlines that you know about. There could be court deadlines, administrative deadlines or financial filings, to name a few. Your prospective new legal counsel needs to make sure they can handle those deadlines.
- Litigation—Make sure the new firm knows what your goals are if the company is involved in any litigation. “Handle it” isn’t enough guidance. They need to understand what kind of outcome you hope to achieve. It is also important to be honest with them about your case. Sugar coating the facts will only lead to more issues down the road.
- Opposing counsel—If you are involved in litigation, ask your prospective legal counsel what kind of relationship they have, if any, with the opposing counsel. Although attorneys should not let their emotions affect the case, determining up front if they play well together can help in the long run.
- Fees—You need to know not only the rates the new firm charges, but how they assign work and do their billing. If your company is involved in current litigation, discuss how the firms new billing structure might affect your bottom line.
- Staffing—Make sure you know exactly who will be working on your company’s legal issues, their personal experience level and their billing rates. On one hand, it helps keep your costs down when associates, paralegals and other staff work on your issues because their billing rates are usually lower. However, you need to be confident that the specific attorney you expect to lead the legal team stays involved and in control of the group.
Once you check all those boxes and decide on a new law firm, it is time to transition. The new firm should be willing to help contact your current legal counsel and break up with them on your behalf, if you prefer, taking one chore off your list and usually leading to a smoother transition. Nonetheless, you should always reach out to your prior firm during the transition to explain the reasons for switching. This will provide useful knowledge for the firm moving forward and hopefully allow you to leave on good terms.
It is also important to understand that you will still owe the outgoing firm for any time billed or expenses accumulated before you hired the new firm, and that your new firm is not usually there to handle prior billing disputes.
Be patient with the new legal team as they ramp up on your account. Assuming you provided all the information previously discussed, everyone should have a clear grasp of the goals, timelines and expectations. That will allow the new relationship to get off to a solid start without any surprises.