Would you rather have good advice or useful advice?

I hope this sounds like a confusing question because I meant it to be. I expect that in response to my question, you may ask, “Isn’t good advice also useful advice?” Well, yes and no. I’ll explain.

This whole issue came as a result of a heated discussion I had recently with a good friend of mine who is handicapped by his Stanford education and whose thinking is, unfortunately, doubly encumbered by the fact that he is a retired attorney. And I strongly suspect that another friend who is a retired doctor might be similarly afflicted.

My friend’s position was that telling someone to go see an attorney is good advice. Period. (It also supposes that because someone graduated from law school that he or she can give good advice. Do you know what they call the guy who graduated last in med school? Doctor.)

As a SCORE business consultant, I am frequently asked business questions that are very close to being legal questions. Ditto questions that relate to accounting, taxation, patenting, copyrighting, incorporating, ad infinitum. Say a client asks me a question such as this: “Should I incorporate my business or should I continue to operate as a sole proprietor?” Strictly speaking — and I agree with my lawyer friend on this — my answer should be, “I advise you to see an attorney.”

Is that good advice? Absolutely. Is it useful advice? We-l-l-l-l, I’m not so sure.

Let me give you a simpler example. Say you come to me with a paper cut on your finger and ask me what to do. I could tell you to see your doctor and that would be good advice. Unequivocally that is good advice. But I could also tell you to put a drop of iodine on it and then a Band-Aid, and that it will probably be all healed up in about a week. Telling you to go see your doctor is good advice, but I don’t really think it’s useful advice. (I guess by useful, I’m thinking practical.)

As a matter of fact, you surely didn’t need me to tell you to go see your doctor. You didn’t need me to tell you to go see your attorney either. My telling you to go see your doctor or your attorney is what I call CYA advice. (If you don’t know what CYA means, send me an email and I’ll explain it.)

So what do I do when I am asked by a client, “Should I incorporate my business or should I continue to operate as a sole proprietor?” First, I explain to the client that I’m not an attorney (or an accountant or a tax expert or a patent expert), and then I say, “Here’s what I would do based on my experience,” and then try to give him or her the most useful advice that I can. Then I tell him or her to go see an attorney.

Which advice would you prefer that I give you?

— Paul Burri is an entrepreneur, inventor, columnist, engineer, guerrilla marketer and iconoclast. He is available to local organizations for speaking engagements and to local businesses for business consulting and/or mentoring. The opinions and comments in this column are his alone and do not reflect the opinions or policies of any outside organization. He can be reached at pburri@cox.net. Click here for previous Paul Burri columns. Follow Paul Burri on Twitter: @BronxPaul.