One of the biggest investments you will make as a new consultant is in those who will provide professional services to you. At a minimum, you will likely consider engaging an attorney and an accountant. Given their influence on your early business decisions, you will want to do all you can to ensure that you pick the right attorney and accountant to help set you up for long-term success.
When selecting these advisors, referrals are clearly worthwhile. Ask other small business owners who they recommend, but consider limiting your survey to firms that are similar professional service firms. Also, attorneys and accountants often refer clients to each other, so if you find, say, an accountant whom you like, request a referral to an attorney, or vice versa.
Don’t hesitate to interview your top few candidates. These are core advisors that you might turn to time and again, especially your accountant. Your goal is to set up for a long-term relationship, so if you find an attorney who is, say, too formal or too alarmist for your taste, you are likely to be unhappy with your choice.
There are three general categories that you want to give advance thought to for each of these key advisors:
- What kind of services do I need from this professional?
- What kind of ongoing relationship, if any, do I seek?
- What kind of traits are most important to me?
Here are some details to consider for each search.
Picking the right accountant
Many consultants come to rely on their accountants for ongoing input and services. Others prefer to learn from an expert and proceed with a DIY approach. Either is fine, and your preference might change over time with the demands of your workload and the complexity of your finances.
Some people use their accountants solely for tax preparation and audits, while others utilize them for bookkeeping, payroll or invoicing services. You might want your relationship to extend to a more proactive side, where you hear from your accountant when tax or retirement laws change. The most robust relationship will have the two of you engaging regularly about the full scope of your business’s finances and its impact on your personal financial goals.
Then there’s the chemistry between the two of you. Do you want to work with someone who takes a conservative approach to finances, or someone who takes a little more risk? Do you want someone who makes compelling cases for you to act in a certain way, or someone who informs you about a set of choices and lets you make your own decision?
When it comes down to making a final selection, do you just plain see yourself trusting this person? Now there’s a key factor!
Picking the right attorney
Most of the accountant-related information has an attorney parallel. First, what will you most seek from your lawyer? Will you need a review of the occasional contract or will your work require regular counsel on, say, intellectual property or other technical matters? Make sure that you choose someone who is regularly engaged in the topics you prioritize.
Second, when you do seek counsel, how long can you expect to wait for a response to your question? If the content of your attorney’s advice is likely to affect the pace of your consulting engagements, you might seek out a team-based approach so that another person in the firm can help you if your designated attorney cannot get back to you quickly.
One of the most critical criteria related to attorney relationships is whether you understand the content of your meetings. If your lawyer uses legal terminology regularly, you want to ensure that the lingo is either defined or that you are given ample chances to ask for those definitions.
Don’t overlook these details…
When working with either type of professional, iron out fee structures early. Hourly fees or flat rates? While you might initially be put off by those who charge more than you do, consider your own practice or that of other consultants you know. Often, those who charge the most are more experienced and can work the fastest. That’s not always the case, but the point is that you don’t want fees alone to deter you. And, there is no shame in asking whether there are ways to reduce costs. Bundling work and engaging with more junior staff are two frequent solutions. If you consider the latter, get a good understanding of when and how you will engage with those at each level.
In general, it’s worth confirming whether you can expect to deal with the person you are meeting. If so, how and when will those more senior in the firm get involved?
Also, if you are a cost-conscious client, then be a good client. Respond quickly when your advisors send you something to review or if they need something. Envision what you’d like in a dream client and then act accordingly.
Don’t forget to ask for references. Just as your clients want to check out your references, you’ll want to do the same for your advisors. You want to know the details of how they work with small businesspeople.
Just as you would for your own consulting practice, make sure to create a written agreement if you plan to engage your accountant or attorney regularly.
Take these searches seriously. With the right partners, you are sure to lessen your early consulting mistakes, saving yourself time, frustration, and money. And, recognize that you are identifying strategic advisors who are setting you up for long-term success.