Quality legal advice and services are expensive. But for small companies trying to navigate the minefields of setting up and running a business — especially for the first time — not getting legal advice can end up being even more expensive.
What does a cash-strapped small business have in the way of alternatives? One solution: mine the Web. A trove of legal resources for small businesses, the Internet offers information, do-it-yourself legal forms, online advice and processing services — some free and some for a fee. They can save you hundreds or thousands of dollars in legal fees.
Caveat Emptor: Buyer Beware
But beware, lawyers say. Not all online legal resources are created equal, and even the best are no substitute for hiring a professional. Of course, lawyers may be slightly biased — they now often compete with the Internet for clients.
According to Bruce Lieber, a partner in Lieber & Lieber LLP, a small business law firm in New York City, more than a few of his clients have come to him because they used online resources and then needed help sorting out legal messes the do-it-yourself solutions failed to anticipate.
“They used an online legal form because they thought it would cover problems down the road,” Lieber says. “But it turns out it didn’t have enough thought behind it. Too much was left unstated. A partnership agreement, for example, that doesn’t lay out how to divide up assets if one guy wants to leave and the other doesn’t want him to.”
Do It Yourself? Think Again
Still, Lieber concedes there are situations where going online for legal help may at least be better than alternatives.
“If you really can’t afford a lawyer and you need a contract done, finding one [a contract template] online is better than trying to write one yourself from scratch. But that’s a pretty low standard,” he says.
If you do use online resources, choose carefully, Lieber says. He suggests steering clear of free services from advertising-supported, no-name sites and sticking with for-fee services from companies you’ve actually heard of or that appear to have a pedigree. The better known and established the company the more likely it will be to apply some quality control.
One of the oldest and best established legal Web services is FindLaw, launched in 1996 by lawyers and legal librarians. It’s now a division of Thomson Reuters, which also provides information and services for lawyers. FindLaw does it all – information, online services, lawyer finder. But it’s only one of a few such sites.
Do Your Due Diligence
The Small Business Center in FindLaw’s “Learn About The Law” section provides free basic information about a variety of topics, including incorporation and other legal structures, employment law, intellectual property, finances and taxes, forms and contracts, business regulations and so on.
Many law firm sites — especially firms that specialize in helping small businesses — publish useful articles and primers. Another good site that provides a variety of services, including information, is Nolo — “Legal Solutions for You, Your Family & Your Business.” Nolo skews more toward consumers, but includes a legal “encyclopedia” with articles such as How to Form an LLC and Getting a Patent on Your Own.
The U.S. government has an excellent small business law portal, Business.gov, that includes forums, articles — including a useful and comprehensive section on how to Stay Compliant with the Law — and links to information from various responsible government departments.
Online Legal Advice
Want quick advice? You can get it online.
In the Small Business section of FindLaw Answers, you can post questions and get answers from other people, including lawyers on the site. FindLaw Answers has four small-business topics covering everything from business structures to trademark, copyright and patent issues, contracts, licensing, permits and labor issues.
Or try JustAnswer.law, part of a larger for-fee Web site with a roster of online experts in a variety of areas — including business law.
When we visited the site, it reported there were 43 lawyers online waiting to help visitors. When we typed in a sample question, it took less than two minutes to make a connection with a lawyer identified by his first name and initials, positive feedback rating and basic qualifications — in this case, the states where he’s licensed to practice law.
The lawyer in question offered to answer our question — Is it safe to use online incorporation services rather than hiring a lawyer? — for $20, $40 or $60. We could have asked for a different expert, but in the end balked at paying anything.