A Lawyer in your Back Pocket

Published in Orchard and Vine Magazine on: October 19, 2012

You can pay me in apples. Or cherries.  

Before moving to the Okanagan Valley three years ago, my husband and I thought about moving to the area and earning fruit for a living.

As tourists, we thought: who needs money? We can live on fruit, sunshine and scenery. Clearly, we were experiencing that vacation high that was quickly lost when we returned home.

Fast forward a few years, throw in a move from Alberta, an eight-acre fruit orchard needing work (and more work), a few new businesses, a couple of kids and a lot of reality, and we realized our foolish idea of living on fruit alone was just that, foolish.

As a lawyer with many years of experience, but a relative newbie to farming life and the agriculture and agri-tourism industries, I’ve been giving a lot of thought about what topic to cover in this, my first article – and it’s this: no reasonable lawyer will tell you to get paid in apples, or cherries for that matter.

This is a theme that bears repeating. The thing is, a good business lawyer will sit down with you, help you guide your business and provide you with the information and advice you need to be successful.

But not all business owners have a good business lawyer, and there are a number of reasons for that.

Some people fear lawyers, some find lawyers are too expensive, some find lawyers do not provide good customer service. I have yet to meet a person who tells me they love lawyers, other than my husband.

The truth is we are not to be feared or to be the butt of jokes (okay, some jokes), rather we are here to help.

Whether speaking with clients, friends or colleagues, I often hear the use of a lawyer as a threat: “if you don’t do this, I’ll call my lawyer” or “if you do that, I’ll call my lawyer.”

While it is true that a lawyer can help people resolve disputes, there are many important business related services a lawyer can provide well before there is any dispute that needs to be resolved.

Whenever someone introduces me as their lawyer and says, “not that I need a lawyer,” it is clear to me that there needs to be more education about the benefits of a business lawyer.

The vast majority of you reading this magazine and, I hope, this article are in business. You may be a winemaker, a viticulturist or an orchardist, a consultant or a supplier, leasing farmland or the owner of that land or perhaps you have an interest in the family farm. Whatever position you may hold or interest you may have, if you are in business, you need to engage in business planning throughout the life of your business.

The key word here is planning. Poor planning can lead to all sorts of nasty, costly disputes and unforeseen consequences. Rather than finding a lawyer to “sic” on the other side, find a lawyer to help you with smart business planning at the outset.

Some of you may be thinking “I just want to do my job” or “I just have a small business, I don’t need to plan.” If you’re thinking these things, you are not alone.

Several of you may have incorporated your company online or downloaded contracts from the internet and patted yourself on the back for getting it in writing rather than relying on a handshake. As a lawyer, I’ve been asked to handle issues arising from these situations on multiple occasions. Disputes and unfavorable outcomes arising from broken business relationships can be avoided or at least minimized with proper legal planning.

A great approach for many of you will be to select a lawyer who can act as a trusted advisor for your business before a problem arises. Ask for referrals, take advantage of complimentary initial meetings and choose a lawyer who is a good match for you and your business. You should feel comfortable with your lawyer and have confidence in their ability to serve you and your business. That lawyer can act as your in-house lawyer for a fraction of the cost of employing a lawyer in your business. Discussions regarding your business, its maintenance and future planning should take place regularly (whether monthly, quarterly or annually). Call your lawyer when you’re structuring your business, entering into a contract, bringing in new partners, protecting your business image, planning to exit your business or whenever you are in need.

No reasonable lawyer will tell you to get paid in apples, but they will tell you when your business interests are not protected and help you plan for business success.

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