Before you hire that lawyer

What to look for when you're out scouting for a lawyer.

It’s not just about lawsuits. A small restaurant typically needs three kinds of legal help: one to help organize the business, from partnerships to corporations; one to navigate through zoning, building and other local rules; and one to help with licenses and permits, like liquor, health, even parking. An experienced lawyer can clue you to issues you hadn’t dreamed of, like getting a fire department permit if you want to have candles on the tables.

“Anyone putting together a restaurant should have a lawyer first,” says Larry Suffredin of Shefsky & Froelich in Chicago, whose clients include the Illinois Restaurant Association. “Hundreds of restaurant operators have bought a location, misunderstood the zoning, begun work on it and then found themselves unable to open.”

Look for a restaurant specialist. “Hospitality is a boutique practice,” says Robert Bookman of the Manhattan firm Pesetsky & Bookman. “If you use the lawyer who did the real estate deal and expect that lawyer to be able to do all the licensing work, you do it at your own peril.”

Investigate the talent for yourself. Besides asking other operators for referrals, stop by City Hall and peruse public records, to see who’s representing the best eateries. Other good sources are local bar associations and Martindale-Hubbell (www.martindale.com), a nationwide directory that includes peer ratings.

Talk to several before saying yes. The first consultation is often free, and the more lawyers you interview, the more confident you’ll be in your choice. If no single firm covers all three of your basic legal needs, you might end up using one for real estate and a different one for permits.

Check out their experience. Most lawyers won’t give you a client list, but they should tell you what kinds of establishments they’ve represented. “If you’re a small restaurant, and the firm has represented mostly package liquor stores, they’re not necessarily the right firm for you,” says Bookman.

Get the fees in writing. Many firms will quote a flat rate for a routine service, like forming a corporation—but only if you ask. If they’re billing by the hour, just like hiring a mechanic, get an estimate. Either way, the firm should spell out all fees and services, including what expenses you’ll be reimbursing, from phone calls to lunch.