How to Find Small Business Legal Resources on the Web

by Gerry Blackwell

Hiring a lawyer can cost a bundle. Not hiring one can cost a fortune. Still, there are times when an online legal resource can save you money, or help you find the right lawyer. We take a look at the best options for small businesses.

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.

Filing Forms Online

FindLaw offers legal forms services that can help small businesses incorporate or set up an LLC (Limited Liability Company). You fill out an online questionnaire. FindLaw partner LegalZoom.com creates and files the articles of incorporation with the appropriate Secretary of State and sends you the documents when they arrive. You follow a few simple steps to finalize the incorporation.

LegalZoom claims its fees – $140 to $370 depending on level of service – will save customers more than $1,000.

Nolo provides similar online forms services for filing for incorporation or LLC — with prices starting as low as $99 — and for making a provisional patent application or applying for trademark registration.

BizFilings offers online forms services for a whole raft of processes, including incorporation/LLC formation, local business licenses, hiring a registered agent, filing for a Federal Tax ID Number and so on.

Templates for Legal Documents

Sometimes all you need is a template for a contract or other business form with legal ramifications. Nolo sells packages of forms that you can receive either as a CD in the mail or as downloaded files.

LegalDocs.com offers dozens of very specific legal document templates that you can download and in some cases fill in online, with prices starting as low as $2.99. Biztree Inc. has Business-in-a-Box, a $200 compendium of more than 1,400 templates that include sample contracts and legal agreements as well as templates for non-legal business documents. You can download a trial version for free.

How to Find a Lawyer Online

As tempting as Internet-based do-it-yourself legal solutions may be, possibly the best use of the Web is to help you find a real lawyer. FindLaw, as its name implies, provides such a service, one of the best of several available on the Net.

First you select or key in the type of legal advice you want and your geographic area, and FindLaw returns all the law firms in its database in your area that do that kind of law. When you click on a firm, FindLaw takes you to its Web site if it has one, or a page on its own site with contact information. A sample search for “business lawyers” for Port Huron, Michigan returned 100 firms, but almost all were in other towns in Michigan, not Port Huron.      

None of the find-a-lawyer sites has comprehensive listings, because most only include listings paid for by lawyers. You may need to try a few services to find the right kind of attorney in your area.

One of the best and most comprehensive, is Martindale, a service used by other lawyers when they’re looking for a colleague in another city or practice area. It offers peer review ratings of many firms — ratings by other lawyers who have worked with the firm — and provides a longer list of practice areas, making it easier to zero in on the type of lawyer you need. It also lets you look for attorneys outside the U.S.

When we asked Martindale for attorneys practicing “business law” in Port Huron. It returned three, but all had addresses in the city.

We found Bruce Lieber through SmallBusinessLawFirms.com. With this site, you can use online forms to provide a bunch of information about your case — the category (business formation, contract, etc.), size of your company, status (public, private), your name and contact information and a text description of the case.

SmallBusinessLawFirms.com returns a list of law firms in the your area — it returned one when we entered a Port Huron zip — and submits your case to all those you leave selected in the results list. They theoretically send you a free evaluation or quote on your case. 

Lieber says small business shouldn’t just take the first name they find at a Web site, though. Talk to a few lawyers on the phone — most will chat for five minutes and tell you if they’re able to help you — and then go and visit the two or three that seem the best fit.

Gerry Blackwell is a freelance technology writer based in London, Canada. Read his blog, AfterByte

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This article was originally published on Thursday Nov 12th 2009
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