Working with a Lawyer

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Your organization should establish some kind of relationship with a lawyer from early on. A lawyer can help you review documents, ensure that you have the appropriate documentation for your organization and its activities, and inform you of risks and remedies.

Over the course of your organization's work, you may have occasion to do many things beyond support and education of and on behalf of your membership. You may have intellectual property to protect or technology to transfer. You may require people to sign waivers of liability for some of your activities. You will encounter contracts and other business documents that should be reviewed to ensure they protect your organization, its volunteers, and its members appropriately.

Establishing a Relationship with a Lawyer

Matt Seiden, Arnold and Porter
Washington DC

"If you're not sure whether or not you need a lawyer, you probably need one, at least to help you decide whether or not you do.

Don't be shy about interviewing lawyers before you hire one, and ask sufficiently detailed questions to learn whether or not they have experience, and if so how much, in matters similar to yours.

Inquire about the lawyer's schedule and availability during the period in question, and make sure you have found someone who has the time, interest and willingness to focus on your case, and be available when you need him or her.

Ask if he or she generally returns phone calls the same day you call. Tell him that is your expectation.

When you have found someone you are comfortable with, ask if he would be willing to take the matter on a pro-bono basis. If he says yes, confirm that this means you will not be billed for any legal fees. Inquire whether or not you will be billed for the lawyer's expenses, which is the usual procedure.

If you can't find an appropriate lawyer willing to take the case pro-bono, and you have found someone who meets all the other criteria and you want to proceed, don't be shy about asking detailed questions about how you will be billed. At a minimum, you should know the billing rates of each lawyer and other personnel who will be working on your matter. Ask if they also bill for secretarial time. Ask how they bill for expenses.

Finally, most lawyers will expect you to sign a retainer agreement before the work begins. Read it carefully, and don't sign it unless you understand it perfectly. If you have questions, ask for an explanation, and request written clarification if necessary, before you sign. The retainer letter, once signed, will be your contract with the lawyer."

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