Human resources expert Merri Mai Williamson on the importance of legal counsel when making business decisions

Photography courtesy of Merri Mai Williamson / Merri Mai Williamson

Question: How can you tell when a lawyer is lying? Answer: His lips are moving!

We have all heard at least one lawyer joke in our lifetime. And if you Google "lawyer jokes," you might just keep yourself amused for hours on end. But, all jokes aside, lawyers serve an extremely important purpose.

If you have owned a business, been a manager or even just been an employee in a business, you are cognizant of the fact that laws (and lawyers) exist to protect the business and its operations, to shield employees from harm, and to guard customers from fraudulent practices. Too often, business owners and managers ignore or are not aware of two main truths:

Not all lawyers are well-versed in labor and employment law; and

Using Google (or any other search engine) as your legal advisor will almost always result in less-than-perfect outcomes.

As an entrepreneur and the architect of two businesses, that there have been times -- especially at the inception of the first business in 1994 – that I tried to save a buck and perform legal services for myself. The English idiom, "penny wise and pound foolish" comes to mind. I learned some expensive lessons.

I understand that we risk-taking entrepreneurs, as well as other business people, tend to think that we should save the money and do it ourselves. Medice, cura te ipsum (Physician, heal thyself). Spend a little now, save a lot later.

Not all attorneys are fully prepared to provide guidance in employment matters. Too often, business owners and managers make the mistake of assuming that the attorney who helped them craft customer contracts is the same attorney who is qualified to assist when an issue arises with an employee.

To further use a physician as an example, you would not go to a foot doctor to treat an abscessed tooth. And if you would, then maybe we need to have a different conversation!

Seeking the appropriate professional to aid in any situation is imperative. You need to find a lawyer who practices primarily in labor and employment. Ultimately, this step will save you money and angst in the long term.

As for the second main truth, Google (and other search engines) have become a normal go-to resource in all aspects of our lives. And Google is good -- but only up to a point.

Google results are highly dependent upon which words you choose to search, the algorithms and other factors. For its many benefits, Google is an imperfect resource that is often considered THE source of all information.

Take non-compete agreements as a practical example. If you searched for "non-compete agreements," you would probably see articles about a proposal to ban them, some definitions, and even some templates to make your own.

I would bet though, that at a minimum, you will be a bit confused as to whether you should even spend time crafting a non-compete for your employees, given the banning proposal. And then, if you chose to use a template, would it even contain language that would be enforceable in a court of law?

Listen, I am not an attorney. But I know that my own employment issues have either been avoided or greatly reduced because I chose to engage with an attorney who has experience in that specific area of law. I also know that I can still use the internet as a first step to find information.

So, if you choose to use the first attorney listed in your search engine results or use a template without a lawyer's review, well then -- the joke's on you!

Merri Mai Williamson has worked in human resources for more than 30 years and holds two national certifications at the highest level. She is the founder of two Chattanooga businesses: Application Researchers, a background checking service; and a human resources consulting firm, HR Master Consultants. Williamson has been a member of Southeast TN SHRM for over 20 years and is a past-president of the organization. Southeast TN SHRM (formerly known as SHRM Chattanooga, is the Chattanooga Chapter affiliate of the Society for Human Resource Management (, whose mission is to create better workplaces in where employers and employees thrive together.