We’ve covered many issues affecting doctors and their business and legal needs, specific exposures, and even some of the team members required to run a medical business. Hopefully this discussion has allowed you to identify areas in your own practice where you should be asking the right questions and seeking the guidance of experts. Today we’ll provide some basic tips to help doctors pick the best legal help:
1. Work with a lawyer: It sounds obvious, but many “planners” implementing legal planning are not attorneys at all. While there certainly are specific instances where document preparers and other kinds of planners can execute or record certain basic legal instruments, it must be remembered that such a relationship is unprotected by any attorney-client privilege and is discoverable with a simple subpoena, which will unearth all e-mails and other communications and work product.
As such, any business that requires confidentiality respected by the courts must be executed by a licensed attorney. Furthermore, reliance on the advice or actions of such a person subjects you to full liability for any actions they take on your behalf and they typically are not subject to any real professional liability for the outcome. A simple way to check is the bar association website of nearly every state. Most of these websites typically allow you to search your attorney by name and see if she is in good standing or has any pending disciplinary issues.
2. Don’t JUST shop on price (and know what the fees include): Remember that in many cases working with an experienced professional that is well-versed in a specific area of the law will be more efficient even if he or she bills more per hour. Specialized, experienced professionals have a running familiarity with the law and controlling cases as well as the other experienced players in the particular field of law in which they practice.
This “reach” and “network” is an asset to their clients and will often allow them to get things done in a more cost-efficient way than their less-experienced and lower-billing counterparts. In some cases fixed-fee billing may be appropriate. Make sure you understand what those fees include and what kind of ongoing support and access the planner provides to his clients if required; many hide huge fees on the back end to lure you in up front. Be wary of any ongoing fees involved to use the planning in addition to what it costs to just set up. Ask specific questions about accounting, compliance and tax status and reporting burdens.
3. Ask specific qualifying questions: With a few narrow exceptions, lawyers can list just about any practice area they want to on their websites and say they “do it.” That does not necessarily represent their training and experience in that area of law.
Look carefully at their professional biographies for experience specific to your particular legal issue. Ask direct questions about the amount of time they have been practicing in that specific area, what the outcomes have been and how many cases they have personally been involved with. Depending on the issues at hand ask about the kind of people they work for, their average net worth, and if discussing an area of specific concern to doctors or their professional liability (i.e. HIPAA, Medicare, privacy, records), ask how many physicians or medical practices they have done this type of work for.
This is obviously a doctor-specific question but an important one if you are a physician or the advisor of a physician doing due diligence on their behalf. In my experience with a client base that includes thousands of doctors, we have learned that medical professionals of all types have unique needs and specific technical and legal exposures that only get more onerous as their success grows.
4. Ask for professional recommendations: This can be tricky for lawyers, especially those who practice in sensitive fields where clients value their privacy (such as asset protection), as opposed to possibly less-sensitive fields (such as real estate). Most attorneys should be able to provide at least a couple of professional references that can speak specifically to their experience in this field or from related professionals outside their own firm that refer clients to them for this specific service.
Consider these issues a starting point in your search and check with your existing advisors. They may have access to qualified counsel outside their area of expertise if they regularly serve people like you.
Find out more about Ike Devji, JD, and our other Practice Notes bloggers.