You can't run a business without legalities, and understanding and complying with them require expertise that you may lack. The type of assistance you use depends on your situation (the level of expertise needed to handle a matter), cost, and your abilities. Here are your options:
DIY, or doing it yourself, depends upon the matter you want to handle and how much time you can devote to it. You probably don't want to represent yourself in a lawsuit but you might be comfortable finding legal answers to routine questions (e.g., what you can ask a job applicant or what business documents to file with the government).
To find answers:
- Contact state/federal agencies. Note the name of the person giving you advice in case any disputes arise later.
- Find help from trade associations and other membership services. For example, NFIB's Small Business Legal Center has a wealth of reliable legal information that can be useful to you (whether or not you are an NFIB member).
- Do an Internet search. Pay careful attention to the site providing the information (a law firm likely posts reliable information, but individuals responding to posted questions may not necessarily do so).
If you need agreements or contracts in the course of your business, you can use free templates that are easily found online. However, it's wise to have an attorney review your completed paperwork to make sure you've covered all your bases. Compile a library of attorney-approved documents that you can use in the future (without additional professional review).
Prepaid legal services
Small businesses may want to consider paying a modest sum each month so they have access to legal assistance for various matters (e.g., contract review, litigation). For example, LegalShield's Small Business Plan offers services for debt collection, legal correspondence, document review, and consultation on legal matters. Plans start at $39/month for a company in California with up to 10 employees (costs vary by state).
There are dozens of lawyer jokes, but lawsuits and other serious legal actions are no laughing matters. Large companies have in-house legal departments to handle their issues; small businesses must find outside counsel. Don't hesitate to turn to a professional when you face substantial legal consequences (e.g., potentially large financial losses or criminal actions). Seek an attorney versed in the particular specialty you need (e.g., employment law; commercial real estate).
When you engage an attorney, ask about pricing. You may pay a fixed amount for the work, an hourly rate, or nothing upfront where the attorney takes a percentage of a recovery (this option only applies in certain types of actions). If the attorney charges by the hour, you likely will be asked to pay a retainer. This is an upfront amount against which an attorney takes the fee. Once the retainer has been used up, you'll continue to be billed for hourly services.
Small business owners shouldn't ignore the vast array of legal issues they face in the course of their activities. Government compliance, employee grievances, and customer complaints are the most common issues, but, unfortunately, there are many more.