As a small business owner, you don’t need us to tell you that getting your company up and running can be an expensive ordeal. There are ways to get free (or cheap) legal advice if you have questions about your small business plan and your cash flow.
It may take months, if not years, after starting your business before you’re able to enlist the assistance of an attorney without breaking the bank. (The minimum hourly rate for a small business attorney hovers around $150.)
Just because your company can’t afford a lawyer at the moment doesn’t mean you don’t need to have one on hand. While you eventually will need to set aside capital to retain legal advice, there are some less expensive — even completely free — options to consider.
Government Resources for Free Legal Advice
To get a firsthand look at the laws and business ownership policies, government websites should be your first stop.
Depending on your exact business needs, here are free legal sites to check out:
- FTC.gov Tips & Advice – The Federal Trade Commission’s website includes an entire section dedicated to presenting documents and reports relating to various aspects of running a small business — from advertising and marketing to credit and finance to privacy and security.
- SBA.gov Legal Compliance – The Small Business Administration’s website provides information and documentation regarding how to obtain and maintain business licenses and permits.
- IRS.gov Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center – The Internal Revenue Service presents all the information you’ll need to file your business tax returns correctly.
- ADA.gov and OSHA.gov – These websites provide info on how to stay compliant with governmental regulations regarding your employment policies and working conditions.
These free government websites can be a double-edged sword: On the one hand, you’ll find the details you need on these databases because they hold the actual documents regarding the laws in question. On the other hand, answers to your specific questions may be hidden in a sea of not-so-relevant information.
It’s also worth mentioning that many laws are complex — meaning it may be difficult to find straight answers to your legal questions.
Online Forums and Communities for Free Legal Advice
Whether you do or don’t find the answers you’re looking for from government sites, the next step should be visiting the many online legal forums and communities.
(A quick note: These resources are free to try, allowing you to find surface-level information on a variety of topics. For more in-depth services, you’ll need to pay a small subscription or membership fee.)
These communities are classified into two categories: “ask a lawyer”-style forums and third-party legal databases.
Ask a Lawyer
Within the “ask a lawyer” category, you can do research on these sites:
These communities consist of licensed attorneys who answer questions on business-related topics. Attorneys who respond to your questions may provide surface-level advice that will point you in the right direction — and help avoid potential legal disaster.
Online databases such as Nolo.com, FindLaw.com, and LawGuru.com act as mediators. These sites explain laws and regulations in ways that can be understood by those who may not be so fluent in legalese.
Keep in mind some of these online services aren’t completely free. Yes, they provide a breadth of legal information for you, as needed, free of charge. But they offer more hands-on services for a price. RocketLawyer, for example, assists entrepreneurs in submitting legal forms as they create their company.
Free Legal Resources Locally
While the internet provides an abundance of legal resources for small business owners, you’ll benefit from taking your search offline.
Depending on where your business operates, the definition of “local” may vary. Those operating in a more populated area likely will have more immediate access to legal resources than those working in more remote locations. Still, you should be able to find many of the following without having to travel too far.
Legal Resources From a Trade Organization
If your company belongs to a trade organization, you likely have access to some level of legal consultation.
In some cases, the content and information may be similar to the sites we’ve mentioned. In other cases, the trade organization may have close connections to established attorneys operating within your industry and your local jurisdiction.
Legal Advice From Law School Students
Here’s an option for companies operating near certain colleges or universities: Enlist the help of soon-to-graduate law students.
Some law schools will offer low- or no-cost legal services to individuals and companies in need to enable their students to get some real-world experience as they work toward their degrees. Note that students are closely monitored by law professors to ensure accuracy and validity.
Seek Out a Lawyer for Your Small Business
Finally, most attorneys will provide a low-cost or possibly free initial consultation that will allow you to:
- Gain more insight into the knowledge you’ve gathered so far.
- Uncover blind spots you have regarding the legal aspects of running a business.
This is where you’ll eventually want to end up at some point: retaining legal services. The larger your business grows, the more complex your operations will become. It will be more difficult to keep up with the legal side of things on your own.
We’d advise against going it alone on the legal front. An experienced attorney can help you fully understand how laws apply to real-world situations.
These legal-advice options help you to get your company moving without taking on too much of a risk in a legal and financial sense. Still, you can enlist the help of a business attorney as soon as your small business can afford it.