Reliable legal counsel is critical to any business. With the wide array of ever-changing criminal and civil statues, making sure that you dot every “i” and cross every “t” is perhaps the best way to protect your business. After all, it’s a lot easier to avoid a situation than it is to get out of one. So what options are available for small business owners today? Here are three.
Ask a Friend/Colleague
This is the option most used, likely because it’s simple and free. Any friend, colleague, even competitor is more than willing to share their take on what you should do in any given situation. They base their advice on things they experienced in handling legal matters in the past, and expect you’ll have the same outcome if you do the same things they did. Naturally, there’s a chance the advice offered is exactly what you need. Additionally, some people gain keen insight due to handling particular matters repeatedly, perhaps due to the nature of their work or simply because they’ve helped many people deal with similar circumstances.
That said, it’s dangerous to base business decisions on the advice of those with limited knowledge of the law. I mean no disrespect to those individuals previously mentioned. The fact is laws change constantly, and circumstances that apply today won’t always apply in the same way tomorrow. Additionally, laws vary from state to state, city to city, even county to county. Even national laws can potentially vary in that they may reference state or city laws in general, and let’s face it – these vary.
Use a Free Service
Free legal services abound. They provide quick access to general legal information which often gives a business owner or entrepreneur an idea of laws pertaining to a legal situation they face. One example is the FreeAdvice website. Designed to provide legal information to individuals and business entities alike, they have a simple goal (as stated on their Business Law page):
“FreeAdvice contains a wealth of free, reliable business law advice. Here, you’ll find information about starting a corporation, partnership, or sole proprietorship, as well as information about franchises, general business law and taxation.”
Yet that same website makes this notable disclaimer:
“FreeAdvice is the leading legal site for consumers and small businesses. FreeAdvice provides extensive legal information and general advice to help you understand over 100 legal topics. As laws vary from state to state and are constantly changing, only a lawyer can provide you with specific advice to rely on. FreeAdvice is a legal publisher, and neither a law firm, nor a substitute for an attorney’s advice, nor a legal referral service.” – Emphasis added
Therefore, as you’ve likely noted, I refer to what such websites provide as legal information. It is general, not specific to any particular circumstance. Only a qualified attorney can analyze a situation and make a proper determination of which laws apply and offer advice on the best way to legally address the situation to protect the rights of the business and its principals and/or stakeholders. This minimizes legal exposure for the business entity.
The Small Business Administration as well as local organizations (in NYC, we have NYC Business Solutions, a set of free solutions offered by the Department of Small Business Services) provide free services to business owners, and legal advice is part of their service suite. These are often referral services that link you with a network of attorneys providing pro bono assistance. This typically means they refer you to an attorney, a paralegal, or a legal assistant; you’re not guaranteed to speak with an attorney. To be clear, any legal professional to which you’re referred should have the necessary expertise to handle your situation. If they do not, I’d like to think that they have enough integrity to get assistance or refer you to someone else with the requisite experience. Still, you aren’t guaranteed an attorney; you’re promised to speak with a legal professional.
Use a Legal Service Plan
Legal Service Plans allow you to speak with an attorney about any legal matter facing your business. Typically, they also allow a suite of other services, such as contract & document review, letter writing, collection assistance, and free or reduced cost court representation. They generally fall into two broad categories:
Open Attorney Systems: Here you choose which attorney you want to handle your matter and the legal service plan reimburses that attorney for time spent assisting you. Some like this approach since they can choose an attorney with which they have a present relationship. Others find it limiting, even if they have an existing attorney relationship. Their attorney may not have experience in all matter they face. In that situation, they either go with the referral of their existing attorney, or find one on their own.
Close Provider Systems: With these plans, you have a network of pre-selected attorneys from which to choose. This assures that you’ll always have attorneys experienced in any situation your business faces. Additionally, they typically allow closer monitoring of the services provided. In some cases, attorneys in the network submit to additional training to help ensure they provide top-notch customer service to plan members. The caveat is your existing attorney may not be part of the network. Still, many find the ability to pick up the phone and get advice on “trivial” matters without being charged a huge bonus, and often use a legal service plan in addition to the services of the attorney with which they have an established relationship.
A fourth approach (one just about as popular as asking a friend/colleague) is to ignore the situation, hoping it will go away. I give it “honorable” mention because of its prevalence. This is not an option! Legal situations are a lot like medical conditions. If you ignore them, they only get worse. So please, get qualified advice and handle your business’ business!
- What to Look for in a Legal Benefits Plan (esbjournal.com)
- Information Article: The Importance of a Business Attorney (writingcanvas.wordpress.com)
- Law ‘incubators’ help new attorneys (utsandiego.com)