Editor’s note: Christine Taylor, a graduate of UCLA School of Law, is a partner at The Towne Law Firm, P.C., a law firm with attorneys licensed in New York, Connecticut, Vermont, Massachusetts, Washington D.C., Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Taylor has grown up in the camping industry, her family has owned three campgrounds in both the Kampgrounds of America Inc. (KOA) and Yogi Bear’s Jellystone Park Camp-Resort franchise systems.
Hiring an attorney for most people is like going to the dentist. It is something you only do when the need arises, a necessary evil. When people hear the word attorney, they think of dollar signs and the removal of civility. We get it – but it does not always need to be that way.
When should you have an attorney? How do you find one? The first time most people interact with an attorney is when they are buying real estate or a business. Often, you find whatever attorney you can for that transaction, and hold on to them for whatever else may arise. But that is not always the best plan of attack.
Why shouldn’t you hire the attorney who already helped you buy your personal residence or get a divorce? They might not have the skill set you need. I currently have clients who found their way to me after using an attorney they had used for a residential purchase. The attorney then went on to botch the commercial purchase and could not advise them on the ancillary things they needed to know before purchasing a campground and afterward. Why is that? Attorneys cannot know everything! The reason I work in a law firm, and not as a solo attorney is so that I can surround myself with other attorneys who know more about certain topics than I do. An attorney who practices real estate for example, might not know anything about litigation or how to prepare your defense in a lawsuit. That attorney who assisted with your traffic ticket might not be able to help you purchase real estate. We all have our strengths, and it is important for you to find an attorney who has experience in the area you need help in, not just one you used for something else.
When to hire an attorney is pretty intuitive. Yes, you should have an attorney when you first purchase your business, they can flag issues for you upfront, negotiate and be the “bad guy” if necessary. Overall, they can make sure that in the event something does go wrong, the documents you relied on will in fact protect you. Additionally, “saving” money by not using an attorney can cost you more later. Did you make sure you put the allocations of the purchase price in writing? This can have major tax implications as you continue your business, and often template purchase agreements do not cut it. I have had multiple clients come to me after real estate transactions have gone awry. There were things we could have easily fixed early in the process but now are much more costly to fix, such as accidentally assuming tax issues, property boundary issues and zoning issues. Bringing an attorney in at the start means saving money later.
The next time you should consult an attorney would be when creating your paperwork. Long-term guests? Run that agreement by an attorney. Employees? Make sure you are properly classifying that employee, not offering employment that runs afoul of your state laws, and properly offering them the job to protect your rights as an employer, which is especially important in at-will employment states. Next, you need to make sure you are following all your state’s laws regarding hired employees, such as sexual harassment policies and employee handbooks. In New York for example, a sexual harassment policy and training is a mandatory requirement. It can be really cheaply handled (even free through the state), but if you do not follow the law because you do not know it exists, it can create problems for you later. Releases and Waivers? Make sure they are drafted to fit your state – get the full protection available in your state for that document and do not just follow a template someone else provided without vetting it. Estate planning? Clear up what happens to your business if you should pass – make sure you know where your assets are going.
Lastly, hire an attorney when you sell your campground. I know it is often a time when people forego an attorney if their state does not require an attorney – but it can have repercussions. If you did not have an attorney look at the contract, you might be stuck in a situation that creates an issue for you later on. As with buying a property, negotiate those allocations, that is the first thing to look at. Next, is there a non-compete that is too restrictive? Did you leave yourself on the hook for future liability regarding environmental issues? All of these things should have been addressed clearly in the purchase agreement, ensuring you leave the transaction with peace of mind.
How do you find an attorney with experience? First, word of mouth. The industry is small and other campground owners in your area might have a relationship with an attorney which they can then pass on to you. Next, ask an owner’s association, typically state or regional associations have worked with or suggested attorneys to their members in the past. Ask your other professionals! As an attorney, I do not have experience in accounting or insurance sales for example, but from working in the industry I can recommend those professionals with campground experience. In turn, those professionals can often recommend an attorney they have crossed paths with and give you an honest review. Lastly, you can google an attorney – but what should you look for?
When Googling an attorney – see what they have out there. We live in the digital age where Googling an attorney will bring up a lot of information. Perhaps it brings up clients they worked with, or articles and blogs they have written, or talks they have given. You can usually tell from this information if it sounds like someone who has experience in the type of work you need help with and frankly if they would be a good fit for you. Your attorney has to be someone you feel comfortable with, there is a lot of trust necessary to have a good working relationship and you need to feel their representation lines up with your needs. Then call them! Often attorneys will talk with you a little bit about your matter, what their experience is and what their game plan would be – you can get a feel for who they are and what they know. Most attorneys will tell you if you actually need to hire them or not. Sometimes you might hit a barrier where an intake person will take your information for an attorney to review and call you back. If they call you back, they are interested – if they do not then you know to move on if you expect quick responses.
Is it ever too late to hire an attorney? Typical attorney answer – it depends. If your issue is something that is governed by a statute of limitations and too much time has passed – you in fact might have missed your window to do something about it. If it is something more transactional in nature, such as updating and fixing your long-term license agreements – this is something ongoing that can always be improved.
Take the time to build a relationship. An attorney is like a fire extinguisher, you might hope you never need one, but it is really good to have one in hand in case of a “fire”.