Navigating legal waters -- everything from structuring and registering your business to drawing up contracts -- can be tricky for small business owners and entrepreneurs. The problem is compounded by the fact that consulting with a lawyer can get very costly very quickly. Shoestring budgets rarely have room for lawyer rates of hundreds of dollars per hour.
So how do you go about finding good legal advice without breaking the bank? Here are three ways to obtain legal services and advice on the cheap.
DIY for Routine Legal Matters
Need to start a business in a hurry? Perhaps you need to apply for a patent before someone else scoops up your idea. For uncomplicated, routine legal matters that require little more than filling out some paperwork, try a service like LegalZoom.com, LawDepot.com and RocketLawyer.com.
If your legal requirements are fairly straightforward, then these sites provide a self-service method of setting things in motion without big legal fees.
For instance, costs for registering a limited liability company, an LLC for short, on LegalZoom.com start at $99 plus state fees, which can vary from state to state. For a few hundred dollars -- again, costs vary by state -- officially forming a business becomes a guided, step-by-step process that anyone who has ever filled out a Web form or two can handle.
But what if your legal needs can't be satisfied by a couple of Web forms?
Crowdsourced Legal Advice
No matter how many problems the Internet solves, handling complex legal issues usually isn't one of them. That's when having access to a real, live lawyer helps.
LawPivot encourages individuals and startups to post legal questions online. The site's algorithms funnel those questions to a handful of the more than 2,000 lawyers in its community -- taking into account the request's content and the state from which the requestor hails. LawPivot's users get legal advice from a couple of experts in return.
It's a cheap and easy way to get pointed in the right direction, legally speaking. But don't expect complex issues to get settled without paying a dime. LawPivot's member lawyers want what every business person wants: more customers. Answering legal questions is their way of building a relationship with potential clients.
And for startups and entrepreneurs, it's their ticket to affordable legal help.
LawPivot's Legal Services Marketplace connects lawyers and clients on a fee basis. LawPivot solicits legal jobs and matches them with expert lawyers. A lawyer then agrees to take the job at a set, usually discounted, price. For a small business on a budget, it can be an effective way to keep legal costs in line while still getting personalized service.
Sometimes, though, you want to look your lawyer in the eye.
Press the (Lawyerly) Flesh
This strategy requires small business owners to get creative, and more likely than not, step away from the Web browser.
One of the easiest ways to get the "friends and family" rate on legal help is to be friends with – or, preferably, belong to the same family as -- a lawyer. Use those personal connections to your advantage and reward their generosity with more legal work as your business takes off.
If your Facebook friends list is conspicuously lacking in legal eagles, then it's time to get in touch with some. Take the initiative and ask around for a good lawyer. It may require some good old fashioned networking, and no, not the computer kind.
With a recommendation or two in hand, it's time to negotiate. That requires making calls and perhaps setting up a meeting or two. Be bold; outline your situation as a cash-strapped startup. Like many business transactions, you can oftentimes find leeway on costs and fees. If successful, you get affordable legal advice, and lawyers get new clients.
Entrepreneurs going the business-incubator route will want to exploit any legal resources the program offers. Beware though, not all incubators are created equal. Watch out for business enrichment programs that bill themselves as incubators but are really in the "business" of selling professional services.
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