If you're like most small-company owners, you don't consult with a lawyer unless you absolutely have to. With fees ranging from $150 to $400 an hour, they're an expensive indulgence. That seems especially true of lawyers dealing with employment law. If employee relations are good, why bother?

Here are two reasons: a handful of new laws have made the employer-employee relationship more of a mine field than ever. Well-thought-out company policies can go far to prevent future litigation. "It costs money. But it will cost a lot more money and a lot more headaches if you get involved in litigation," says Ron Richman, a partner at Chadbourne & Parke, based in New York City.

Second, any lawyer will clock fewer hours on problems in a company that he or she is already familiar with. A long-term relationship will allow your lawyer to better understand your business and its risks. "The advantage is that your lawyer doesn't have to get up to speed when you call and say, 'I want to fire Susan,' " says Colleen McMahon, a partner at the New York City firm Paul, Weiss, Rifkind, Wharton & Garrison. To know what to look for in an employment lawyer, see "Getting the Right Lawyer," [Article link]. -- Ellyn E. Spragins

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The best way to find a good lawyer is a referral by someone who's satisfied. If you need a more comprehensive list, check the library for Martindale-Hubbell Law Directory, which provides descriptions of lawyers. Also, American Lawyer Directory of Labor Law Practices (800-234-4256, $35, updated annually) contains profiles of firms and individuals.

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