Choosing a law firm can be tough. While full-service firms have broad experience in all aspects of the law, a firm specializing in labor law may have a subspecialty in small business. Although the reputation of a firm is important, you want to focus on the experience, credentials, and personality of the individual lawyer you'll be working with. Here's what to consider when selecting your lawyer:

Your needs. Preventive legal guidance is most useful in three broad areas: hiring, firing, and making personnel policies. Some of the issues that can arise are race, sex, and age discrimination; sexual harassment; compliance with the Americans with Disabilities Act; and wrongful discharge. You may want counsel on most of those issues, but you should identify which are particularly pertinent to your work force.

Credentials and experience. Look for someone who's experienced and stays up-to-date with labor law. Ask what he or she has worked on in the past six months.

If your company isn't large enough to have a human-resources professional, your lawyer may provide the only guidance you get. So make sure the one you choose will offer ideas above and beyond a purely legal perspective. Instead of telling you what steps you must take to protect yourself when you fire someone, a lawyer with a business perspective might also suggest instituting a termination committee, which has a managerial, as well as legal, payoff.

Query your prospective lawyer on an actual or likely problem in your company. If he or she answers by citing a lot of case law without telling you how you might use it, keep looking.

Legal charges. Most lawyers still charge by the hour. The advantage of a pay-as-you-go arrangement is that you pay for only as much advice as you need. Some lawyers ask for a retainer, a lump sum good for ongoing, periodic counsel. That payment method puts a ceiling on what you spend, but you're not reimbursed if you consult them rarely. Other firms charge a combination of a retainer for periodic work of one sort and an hourly fee for litigation or other special tasks. To figure out what method suits you best, think about whether you'll need most of the advice up front as you establish and review personnel policies, or only periodically, as hiring and firing issues arise. Don't hesitate to ask how to lower charges or cap future increases. After all, lawyers are businesspeople too. -- Ellyn E. Spragins

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