After years of coasting on my own internet research to keep my business official and legal, this year, I decided to hire an attorney. I needed help with a major business structure change and decided that it was way over my head, totally out of my area of expertise, and that if I tried to do it myself, I might make some mistakes that could get me into a lot of trouble. I had not been willing to take this step until I was pushed into that tight, trapped corner. I was totally out of my league.
In the process of finding, hiring, working with, and then paying my attorney, I realized that I was going through the same process through which I guide most of my clients, with the end product being not a legal business structure but a web site. My attorney was fantastic; she guided me through the process in a way that made me smarter about it when we were done. It made me very conscious of what it could be like for my clients to build something online with me, and really changed the way I attempt to go from someone's prospective vendor to their long-term consultant.
A Friendly Face with No Selling
I met the attorney I finally hired at a networking meeting. She was friendly, chatty, and brought up her business only during the formal "introductions" portion of the meeting. We had several similar opportunities to meet and talk before I engaged her about my own business, and every time, she followed that same format -- she explained what she did when the time was right, and after, presented herself simply as another interesting person at the event, not as a salesperson for her law firm. Because of this, I got to know her personality which, appropriately, is no different in her office than it is outside the office.
I know a lot of attorneys. I even know an attorney who told me that he could help me with restructuring my business for free, at night, just by filling out a few forms online. I hired the attorney I chose because I got to know her, learned in a very low-pressure way what she could do for me beyond filling out the forms, and felt comfortable that our personalities would match. That's a great model for any business-owner to follow -- and I hope that's how my clients arrive at their decisions to hire me, as well.
The price to form my business entity was fixed before I ever set foot in my attorney's office. She didn't present it apologetically, or tell me she was offering me a deal, or compare it to other prices for other attorneys. She just told me what it cost and moved on. It was such a relief. I didn't want to negotiate or wonder about pricing. "How much does it cost?" is a question that should have a simple answer.
This is a challenge for me, since what I deliver to my clients can vary so widely. There's no such thing as the cost of a web site. Non-profit organizations and very small businesses -- which are the majority of my clients -- are often struggling financially, and that makes it tempting for me to soften or apologize for the cost of my work. However, this experience inspired me to come up with some reasonable baseline prices, and to provide quotes to my clients in a way that is as clear and firm as my attorney's price delivery.
Lots and Lots of Talking
At every phase of this process with my attorney, she gave me ample opportunity to ask questions and talk through details. I asked questions that I imagine were very, very basic to her. As an experienced attorney who deals almost exclusively with clients just like me, she's probably had to answer questions about the differences between an LLC and an S-corp a million times, but she never once seemed exasperated. I may have even asked the same question more than once, but it never mattered. For her, the process was not complete until I understood exactly what she was setting up for me. The benefit to her was that -- when it all finally sunk in -- I would have fewer surprises later. My taxes would be easier, resubmitting my paperwork the next year would be easier, and, if she put the time into making sure I understood it in the first place, she wouldn't have to explain it again later.
This applies in every way to my business. I could exchange just a few words in that sentence above and say, "As an experienced web developer who deals almost exclusively with clients like me, she's probably had to answer questions about the differences between Joomla and Wordpress a million times, but she never once seemed exasperated." As unfamiliar as I felt with those legal terms, my clients feel equally as unfamiliar with the lingo of my industry. I've always wanted my clients to understand what they were building with me, but having sat on the client side of the table with such an able legal guide, I am newly appreciative of the value of lots and lots of talking.
Detailed Written Instructions
I'll admit that I was scared I'd do something wrong with all the papers my attorney gave me when I left her office, but she gave me a list of instructions about what needed to be filed in my electronic record, what needed to be filed in hard copy, and what she would be keeping for me. I had clear marching orders. What a relief!
This is something that I can do for my clients, too -- and actually, I always have. User manuals or other training materials should be part of the end of every web development project where the client is in charge of any web site maintenance. Especially for users who didn't previously feel as technically-minded, step-by-step instructions are fantastic. They protect the client from their own fickle memory, and they protect me from too many "can you remind me how to...?" emails and phone calls. Even when the calls and emails come anyway, as they do, I can often just email my client a copy of the training materials with a page reference -- much easier than recreating verbal instructions over and over.
At the end of the process of incorporation, there were things I didn't feel entirely sure I could handle. As long as we were in process, my attorney was available for questions and clarifications, but as someone who bills by the hour myself, I knew I'd feel uncomfortable asking her for legal advice or clarification once we were done. In addition, there was the matter of correspondence I'd get from the state that I knew I wouldn't be able to manage myself. Thankfully, she offered a very reasonable annual rate to act as my receiver on that correspondence. It was the easiest financial decision I'd made yet -- and I retained her for that purpose without a second thought.
This is a great model for both of us -- she has learned that I value her help, and so she'll feel comfortable asking me for appropriate compensation in the future when I hire her for other things, and I feel comfortable asking her for it, knowing that I am not going to be low on her priority list. In my industry, too, balance like this is important. Clients who hire me for longer-term, retained maintenance agreements know that I am saving time for them every month, and because of that, I am not rushed or squeezing their work in around other projects.
Business who provide a service can easily get caught in the long-term policies and procedures that have sustained them for years. Becoming a client of another service provider can really open your eyes to other ways of doing business, whether that process inspires you to make a change or reinforces to you how valuable your policies already are. I'm glad I had this opportunity to sit on the other side of the table.
(As you can imagine, I highly recommend the law firm we used. If you're in the Chicago area and need a small-business attorney, Oldani Entrepreneurial Law provided a great service to us. We were lucky enough to work with Jessica Oldani, the firm's founder.)