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November 9, 2015

The Lawyer as Business Partner

by WSBA
handshake
Attorney Henry Dixon explains how serving as both effective partner and proactive advisor heightens a lawyer’s value to business clients.

A handshakeAttorney Henry Dixon explains how serving as both effective partner and proactive advisor heightens a lawyer’s value to business clients.


There is a regular conflict within companies between the business and legal sides. The business has goals for its goods and or services — develop a quality good or service, bring that good or service to market, and provide revenue and profit for the company. Legal goals involve ensuring that the business stays within the lines of the law. Often, the business feels that legal interferes with the process and erects unnecessary barriers that can interfere with the timeline to achieve the business goal. Legal slows down the process. This is a familiar conflict to many business people.

The lawyer who provides real value to a small or mid-sized business is one who is a true business partner, not just a legal advisor. When advising a small or mid-sized business, a lawyer must:

  • Be an effective business partner.
  • Be proactive in identifying potential risks to the business.

How lawyers can be effective business partners
Small and mid-sized businesses have very specific challenges. To be an effective business partner, a lawyer must first understand and accept the fact that she or he must have a clear understanding of 1) the business and 2) the specific goals of the business — before even considering any specific legal issues. If a lawyer focuses only on the legal issues, she will not have the same perspective as colleagues on the business side.

Understanding the business
A lawyer should be at the table with business people to understand the nature of the goods or services, challenges the business is facing to develop the goods or services, risks to the business, competition, costs, and revenue projections, and many other relevant issues.

Goals of the business
A lawyer should have a clear understanding of business goals for that particular good or service. Many effective businesses have professionals from different parts of the company meet as a group. As a group, each individual can bring value to the development of goods or services and help the company achieve its goals. A lawyer should think as a businessperson, as well as a lawyer, to provide perspective and advice that others at the table may not have.

The proactive lawyer
The problems that small and mid-sized businesses face may have a more detrimental effect, proportionally, than that same problem would for a large corporation. Large corporations often have resources that small and mid-sized businesses do not have, which allows these larger entities to weather a storm. For small and mid-sized businesses, some problems can cripple operations or even put them out of business.

A lawyer who is a real business partner won’t just provide legal advice and services for a specific task. He will employ a broad perspective and, based on his knowledge of the business, proactively consider potential future legal risks as well as focusing on the current legal issue.

How can a lawyer be proactive?
Here are some ways a lawyer retained by a small or mid-sized business can be proactive:

  • When retained as a lawyer to handle a legal issue for a business, ask the business owner or business people for a meeting to discuss the legal issue as well as the business in general.
  • Based on information provided during this meeting, determine if there are any other potential legal issues that the business owner has not identified.
  • Provide suggestions on how the business can proactively address potential legal issues before they become real problems that could adversely affect the business. A good lawyer can provide legal advice and services to avoid potential future legal issues — often for a fraction of the cost of what it will take to address the problem later.

As a lawyer and proactive business partner, you can bring real value to your small or mid-sized business.

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