A contract dispute, a lawsuit from a customer, an employee filing an ADA complaint — these are a few of the legal issues you could face as a small business owner. Then there are the more routine matters, like forming a new LLC or putting together a commercial lease. One way or another there will be times when you need legal help.
Of course a lawyer can be expensive. The American Bar Association reports that a recent analysis puts the average hourly billing rate around $536 for law firm partners and $370 for associate attorneys. Fortunately there are a number of places where you can get free legal forms and information, and even free legal advice for business. Twenty of these resources are listed below.
But a word of caution is in order. Sometimes information and advice can be too general to be applicable to your specific situation. Also, you might misunderstand what you read online, or worse, it could be inaccurate.
So, use the resources here, but run your contracts and/or plans past a lawyer. It is cheaper to have an attorney review your legal work than to have him prepare everything for you (or fix a mess you make), so combining inexpensive do-it-yourself resources with a legal review is a way keep your costs down and keep you safe.
Low Cost or Free Legal Advice for Business
Rocket Lawyer is one of the leaders of online legal help. You can make one document for free to start, which you can print or download as a PDF. After that you can sign up for a Rocket Lawyer membership free for a week. That lets you create unlimited legal documents and comes with advanced tools like their e-signature service and online sharing. You can also ask a lawyer legal questions and have your completed documents reviewed.
The legal plan costs $39.95 per month after your free trial expires. If you need additional legal help you can get it at a discount.
One of the better-known legal websites, the history of Nolo goes back to 1971, when it began as Nolo Press, selling do-it-yourself legal books. Those eventually included business related topics ranging from forming a corporation to patenting inventions.
On its website you can find a wealth of free legal advice for business, as well as books and business forms available for purchase. If you open a free account first, you can create, save and edit your legal form before you pay to download or print it. You can also use Nolo’s Lawyer Directory to find an attorney by specialty and location.
The business section of Lawyers.com has free articles and tutorials on many topics, but there are two other features that make this site worth a visit. First, the “Ask a Lawyer” form lets you submit a question for free and “receive multiple answers from top rated lawyers.” Second, its “Find a Lawyer” tool not only lets you search by area of law and location, but provides customer reviews of the attorneys listed (Nolo, for example, does not have reviews as part of its directory).
You can use the Q & A forums on Avvo to get your legal questions answered for free. If you need more help, you can talk to a lawyer for a flat fee of $39. Its directory of business lawyers has “over 89,064 in-depth profiles on attorneys who handle Business matters,” and the entries come with ratings from previous clients.
LegalZoom.com has a business legal plan that starts as low as $23.99 per month. For that you get to “Ask business legal questions, get advice on specific situations, have an attorney review your business contracts and more.”
The website also provides legal documents, but they cost more than other online providers. For example, the paperwork to form an LLC will run you $149. There are many places where you can get the forms to do it yourself for less. The advantage that LegalZoom offers is the help of an attorney, who will look over your paperwork and suggest changes if necessary.
Like many legal websites, there is a large collection of articles here, which may answer your questions. On the “Ask a Lawyer” page you can get your questions answered by an attorney for free.
In the section on small business law Findlaw has many articles on legal topics that are free to read. They also sell legal forms for all 50 states, at prices starting around $14.95.
LawGuru says it has a “network of over 7,700 specialized attorneys in all legal areas.” You can either type your question into the box on the homepage or search their past answers.
Small Business Forums
Online discussion forums for small business owners can be full of questionable legal advice, since participants are not attorneys. But sometimes you’ll find people who have faced the same issues you’re facing, and you can read about or ask how they resolved them. Then you can run the solution past an attorney to verify that it will work in your case.
You can find forums for a specific niche with a Google search (“forum” + industry), and there are forums that cater to a variety of small business owners. For example, Small-Business-Forum.net has a legal issues discussion board.
Federal Trade Commission
If you think your competitors are using unfair practices read through the FTC’s online guide to Antitrust Laws. It provides information on how to report a suspected antitrust violation and whom to turn to for enforcement. There is sufficient information there to either avoid the necessity of hiring an attorney, or to be better prepared when you do hire one.
Small Business Administration
The SBA website has a page about handling legal concerns that links to some useful resources. It may be more useful to use the search box for articles and advice on specific issues. For example, a search for the term “sued by employee” turns up a number of useful articles on topics ranging from how to fire an employee without violating the law to buying business liability insurance.
Internal Revenue Service
If your legal issues are related to taxes you might find the information you need in the Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center. The IRS maintains a collection of resources here, and some are available in Spanish as well.
U.S. Department of Justice
The Justice Dept. website has a list of free legal service providers. Choose a state and click through to find the ones near you. Most are oriented to helping individuals rather than small businesses, but it can’t hurt to check.
Civil Rights Division of the Justice Dept.
For legal questions about the Americans with Disabilities Act visit the ADA Business Connection page. The Civil Rights Division of the Dept. of Justice has an extensive collection of information here about ADA compliance for customers and employees, and even has guidelines for some specific business types.
If you have legal questions about your businesses compliance with OSHA regulations, what better place to get them answered than from OSHA itself? Use their “Compliance Assistance Quick Start” program online.
For small businesses, they also offer a free “On-Site Consultation Program” to help you determine if you’re in compliance with the law.
SCORE is a non-profit association that helps small businesses with advice, mentoring, and education. Its volunteers are experienced business people who provide free counseling by phone, email, and in person. The particular counselor or mentor you get will probably not be a lawyer, but it is possible that he or she will have had some experiences with the same legal issues you face, or can refer you to someone who has.
Free Business Legal Clinics
There are various free legal clinics around the country. For example, the Small Business Legal Clinic in Oregon has had more than 300 attorneys volunteer for the SBLC Pro-Bono Project. To locate one near you, search online using terms like “free legal clinic” “business legal clinic” and the name of your state or locality.
If you belong to a trade association you might get free legal advice for business, advice and help from their legal staff. If you don’t yet belong to one, it might be worth the cost to join. Typically you’ll at least get online and newsletter-based legal advice. Check a list of trade organizations to find the one that makes the most sense for your small business.
Your Fellow Business People
While you shouldn’t rely too heavily on the legal opinions of non-lawyers, it is possible that other business owners have had the same legal issues you’re facing. Ask around, and to see how they resolved matters. You’ll be better prepared if and when you hire an attorney to help you. Better preparation cuts down on those billable hours you’ll be paying for.
Your Local Attorneys
Finally, there are probably some lawyers near you who offer a free initial consultation of 30 minutes or more. That may not be enough to resolve your matter, but you’ll at least have a better idea how to proceed. Prepare for your initial consultation thoroughly, so you can get to the point quickly and get as much out of the meeting as possible.
How do you find the ones that offer free legal advice for business in the form of a free consultation? Call and ask, or just Google “lawyer free consultation” and the name of your city.
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