August 2011 Finding Expert Professional Help
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Finding Expert Professional Help

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By Steve Strauss.  

Small business people typically need two sorts of professionals - lawyers and accountants. They are necessary because they can help steer you away from trouble, and get you out of trouble if need be. Lawyers can help with contracts, leases, hiring and firing employees, and a host of other issues. Accountants will help prepare your taxes and can give other helpful financial advice. Combined, these two professionals can become vital advisors.

But this begs the questions: Where do you find a good accountant who knows his stuff, or a lawyer whom you can trust? The best way is through a satisfied customer. A referral will tell you far more about a professional than a dozen television ads. So, if you know someone (or know someone who knows someone) who has a business similar to yours, find out how they like their lawyer or CPA. You need to discover the following:

  • Did the professional get good results? Did the case settle successfully, was the contract beneficial, were taxes reduced? Results are what count.
  • Was the lawyer or accountant accessible? Far too many attorneys are hard to reach and don't return phone calls quickly. A call should be returned within 24 hours. That is what you should insist upon.
  • Were the fees reasonable? While you need to be conscious of fees when hiring a professional, but they are not the most important thing to be concerned about. As in the rest of life, with attorneys and accountants, you often get what you pay for; the cheapest is probably not the best.
  • Who does the work? Many lawyers and accountants (especially at big firms) pawn your work onto underpaid, overworked associates. While this helps keep their fees down, you want to make sure that the person you hire is the one doing the work when it counts.

If you can get a referral for a professional who meets these criteria, call him or her and schedule a meeting. As you are looking to start an important long-term relationship, expect to spend a few hours with the lawyer and accountant. Get a feel for his or her personality. Make sure he understands your needs. Find out about his or her background. Get some referrals. Certainly, you should not expect to be billed for this meeting, and if you are, it's a bad omen.

Barring a referral from a friend or business associate, here are some more ways to find good advisors:

  • Call your Local Bar Association. Almost all cities have an association of local lawyers called a "bar association." The lawyers are listed by their areas of specialty and the bar can usually give you the names of some of its members who have a good reputation. As bar associations are non-partisan, you can rest assured that the recommendation will be pretty trustworthy.
  • Contact the AICPA: The American Institute of Certified Public Accountants is the premier national association for CPAs in the United States (AICPA.org.)

You want to find a professional whose judgment you trust, who is smart and sharp, who seems more concerned about helping you than billing you, and with whom you get along. A tall order for sure, but doable.