In response to the rapidly growing drone industry, there are now many attorneys and law firms that are seeing an opportunity to make money and are offering drone legal services as a part of their regular practice areas. Although many of these attorneys and/or firms may have experience in their regular and specific legal fields, they most likely are just trying to get into this new legal field area (“get their feet wet”) by offering a new drone practice group with drone legal services. How can you find an experienced drone attorney that will best serve your drone legal needs as opposed to an attorney who is just trying to dabble in the drone area? Here are five tips to find an attorney to best help with your needs:
1. Find out how many 333 petitions the attorney has filed.
Many attorneys are starting to come into this new legal field. Some of those attorneys have no aviation law knowledge or section 333 experience. If they don’t have any experience, this could cause some problems. One example is where an inexperienced attorney might charge you more for a petition so they can learn how to do it or to get experience. Another example is that an inexperienced attorney might not be able to rapidly file your 333 petition which means your wait is longer until you can commercially operate.
2. Find out how many of the attorney’s clients are commercially operating now after they received their 333 petition.
This is helpful because it tells you that the attorney has taken a client all the way through the 333 process and the drone registration process. Also, ask for the names of their previous clients who have been approved and are commercially operating. Contact those clients and ask them for their opinion of the attorney and whether they would recommend that attorney.
Another benefit of using an attorney who has clients who are commercially operating is that the attorney is familiar with the “real world” problems commercial operators face, such as the 24-hour NOTAM problem, the 500ft bubble from non-participants, flying within 5 nautical miles of an airport, or flying under the Class C or Class B shelf.
Are there any benefits to using an attorney new to the area? A new attorney might perform exceptional services so that they can get their feet wet and make a name for themselves in the industry. If they are desperate to get experience, you might get a great deal for an exemption. Also, some attorneys new to drone law are very skilled in other areas of the law which you might need help with such as business or tax law.
3. You should find out what the costs will be.
The fees of different law firms range all over the place. The general range of prices I’ve heard of is between $2,500 and $12,000 per petition. Larger law firms sometimes charge more than smaller law firms. Partners charge more than associates. Check out the location where the law firm is located because law firms in fancy buildings have higher overheads costs than firms in more modest buildings. You, not them, are paying the rent for the location.
If they provide you a cost estimate, ask them to break the hours down and also ask them about what they used to arrive at the estimated number of hours. It is a good idea here to get a fixed cost and not have the attorney bill you at an hourly rate which could turn into a black hole for your money. That being said, if you are asking for something that has never been done before, or is a really complex and difficult situation, you are most likely only going to have the option of the attorney billing you hourly.
If the cost is out of your immediate price range, ask them to split the payments up so you don’t have one lump sum. You could maybe negotiate the contract so that 1/3 of the cost is up front, 1/3 is before submission, and 1/3 is upon the petition being completed. You could also ask for a money-back guarantee.
4. Ask who is developing the manuals?
The FAA looks at the manuals you submit for the aircraft and operations to determine if there is an equivalent level of safety as the regulations. Are you going to create the manuals or is the attorney? Some attorneys do not do manuals. This is understandable because they did not go to manual school but law school. Does the attorney have a referral source who can do manuals for you in case you do not have the knowledge to do them? What are those costs?
Also, the FAA is requiring that petitioners asking for closed-set TV/movie filming operations will be required to submit to the FAA a Motion Picture and TV Operating Manual (MPTOM). Does your attorney even know what an MPTOM is or where to get one? Your attorney should explain the benefits of having closed-set TV/movie operations on your exemption and also define what “non-participant” means.
5. Do they have an aviation background?
Finding a good attorney in the area of drone law is not just about getting the 333 petition filed for the lowest price but is also about complying with the federal aviation regulations. A good attorney needs to understand your long-term goals of actually operating under the regulations. Your attorney needs to see the potential problems with your proposed commercial operations and help you decide whether to change your business operations/model or scrap the idea altogether. In one of the Abbot and Costello movies, Costello was asked, “Was your business legal?” His response was, “Better than that. It was profitable!” A good drone attorney can help you be legal AND profitable because they know the aviation sector and how to navigate the regulations.