My engineering firm is exploring construction business in Nigeria. Where can we find local law firms that are familiar with setting up entities for American companies there? We are having trouble finding the right legal expertise in our existing network.
—P.L., Anaheim, Calif.
A: In your case, a Web search for "international law firm" will not help to narrow the field much, as Chas Rampenthal, vice-president and general counsel of LegalZoom.com points out. "A localized and personal investigation," he says, "will give a business owner more information and a clearer sense of his specific needs."
So how does an entrepreneur go about finding that "needle in a haystack" person whom she needs to guide her company through a complex tax situation, esoteric legal problem, or unusual labor dispute?
The best general resource is probably other companies that have run into the same issues. Ask around within your small business network (in-person and online) to see if you can find a personal referral, or take advantage of the myriad interactive small business forums. Oftentimes, someone else who has faced a similar situation will offer a referral or at least a cautionary piece of advice.
In your case, you might search for companies currently doing business in Nigeria or in a neighboring country. "Contact someone in that organization and find out about their experience. If that business has a local presence, offer to buy that person lunch or coffee and pick his or her brain for ideas and for names of lawyers, accountants, or consultants the company used to set up its foreign offices," Rampenthal suggests.
Try Your Bar Association
Can't find another entrepreneur who has walked in your shoes? Turn to the pros. "People with questions about highly specialized areas of the law should contact their city, county, or state bar association, and for business issues, their local Small Business Administration office," says Leonard Lee of FindLaw.com.
A wealth of assistance is available for U.S. companies doing business abroad, but you have to know where to look for it. The U.S.Commercial Service, part of the Commerce Dept., promotes sales to global markets and helps U.S. firms export. Along with vital information about doing business in Nigeria, it is likely that their representatives could refer you to experienced legal help, either at home or abroad.
On a state level, the California Centers for International Trade Development should be able to refer you to in-person counseling and referrals, not only on legal matters but also on such areas as tax law, contracts, labor, and foreign investment guidelines in Nigeria.
On a global scale, the World Bank produces information about doing business in many foreign countries, including Nigeria.The Nigerian Embassy also publishes general information about starting a business there.
"Arming yourself with information before you look for professional assistance will help you ask the right questions of your candidates. Spend some time familiarizing yourself with the general process before retaining counsel—you may find that this reduces your costs significantly," Rampenthal says.
Once you begin interviewing lawyers, he recommends that you ask one initial question: "How many U.S. companies has your firm qualified to do business in Nigeria in the past few years?" If the answer is "none," move on. Once you find a candidate, get an estimate of costs before the work starts: Large U.S. law firms with offices abroad often bill at top rates. Good luck!