We all find ourselves, from time to time, in the same position as Warren Zevon’s narrator in the 1978 single “Lawyers, Guns and Money,” in which he asks his dad to send all of the above. Well, maybe you don’t find yourself in gambling in Havana or hiding out in Honduras, exactly. But occasionally we all need some heavy backup. And as sure as you flip the OPEN sign on your restaurant, the day will find you when you hit a legal snarl. Might be that some patrons got in a scrap in the parking lot. Could be that a manager is facing some unsavory accusations from the staff. Might be that vax mandates or Covid bailouts are hopelessly complex. Or it could simply mean your landlord just sent you a lease so thick it can’t be stapled.
For such tasks routine and extraordinary alike, guns and money might be nice. Better, though, is the lawyer. And best is a lawyer familiar with the intricacies of the restaurant biz.
Attorneys belong to every conceivable stripe — entertainment attorneys, real estate attorneys, the blessed pro bono attorneys, the dreaded divorce attorney. And, yes, restaurant attorneys. Consider them potentially a last line of defense, but more routinely a first line of attack for all your restaurant needs.
It’s better to have one and not need one than to need one and not have one … but you’re definitely going to need one. Just ask Kareem Hajjar, a partner at Hajjar Peters LLP in Austin, Texas. He has been a restaurant attorney for 20 years, assisting thousands of owners of franchises and of one-off locations.
Don’t wait until you're in trouble, like Warren Zevon’s character, to find counsel. Don’t even wait until you think you might be in trouble. Do it before anything else. Do it yesterday. His free legal advice? “Before they decide that they're going to open a restaurant, they should call a lawyer,” Hajjar says.
Often, he’ll get a call only after an aspiring restaurateur has a lease weighing down their desk. “Somebody says they got an 80-page lease,” he says. “About that time that lease comes out, they go, ‘That's more reading than I’ve done since high school … what does this all mean?’” Already you’re in over your head. The landlord expects a 48-hour turnaround for that 80-page document. You see where this is going.
You really want to have an attorney on-deck before the inscrutable paperwork arrives. Because once that’s done, you’ll need to hire architects and contractors. Buy equipment and lock in service plans. Sign deals with delivery apps. Secure licenses. Hire accountants, bookkeepers, and a banker. You’ll need to know and abide by federal, state, and local labor laws.
Do your restaurant a giant favor. Bring in a professional. In fact, make it a part of your business plan. Free yourself up to worry less and to do the things that you actually enjoy doing.
Think of restaurant attorneys as you would a sous chef, an essential part of your operation. Just as a good sous chef brings the tools and skills to handle any cut of meat that gets plopped down, your attorney can carve through contracts, agreements, and lawsuits that arise between you and governments, landowners, distributors, employees, and the public.
If you have the resources, you should ideally enlist a firm, rather than a single individual, to handle this array of legal issues. “You need a law firm that has well-rounded experience in all of these areas,” Hajjar says. “Because you're gonna run into them.”
Finding a trusted or nearby firm familiar with restaurant work may not be possible, for any number of reasons. Even then, Hajjar says a prospective restaurateur should still look for some essential qualities when retaining an individual representative. The must-have core competencies? Corporate securities, leasing and buying, and permitting. “If you've got those, at least you can get open,” he says. “God knows what you're doing with the other systems. But at least you're getting open.”
So how, then, do you know which restaurant lawyer is the right fit? File that along with other eternal questions. What, to you, constitutes the perfect location? Who, exactly, is the ideal general manager to run your front of house? How do you define love?
The answer is the same: You just know. Finding the right restaurant attorney is no different. Above all, picking the right restaurant attorney means picking the person that works best with you and your needs.
“We're attorneys and counselors,” Hajjar says. “People just kind of forget the word 'counsel' in there. And the older I get, the more of my practice is that.”
Counseling, to him, means bringing nearly 20 years of experience to all the related parties — dinner, legal, business, or otherwise. As a restaurateur, you should have a relationship in which you feel comfortable counting on such a person who counts your success as their own. You need a referral for a general contractor, or a designer, or an equipment purveyor? That’s where you should be able to ask your trusted counsel who they’d go with.
“If I have a referral in that area, I don't get anything for it,” Hajjar says. “I want you to be successful so that you open more restaurants.”
If there’s a secret ingredient to this stuff, consider: Does the attorney simply enjoy discussing the restaurant business? Back of House reached out to a number of attorneys for this piece. Hajjar called back personally the same day and made an effort to build rapport with someone intimately familiar with how a restaurant works. It was a natural way to make a strong impression.
“I have a lot in common with restaurateurs,” Hajjar says of his working relationships with clients, who, as restaurateurs and chefs, tend to be hardworking and creative. “If you don't have a work ethic that's outta control, you're not gonna make it. Your restaurant won't make it. ... You have to be kamikaze-like in terms of your determination to do it. It's crazy.”
Crazy, obsessive, fun — whatever attributes you want to see in their chefs on the line, you can probably find in an attorney cooking up the legal protections.