Handling Legal Issues: When to Hire a Lawyer or Do It Yourself

By on March 11, 2018
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If you are a business owner, chances are you have worked with an attorney to help with incorporation, contracts, or to represent you in court. It’s smart to seek legal assistance when needed, but there are many legal issues you can handle on your own. Knowing what you can and cannot do can save you time and money. Here are some guidelines on when to handle legal issues yourself and when to hire a lawyer.

Legal DIY

Just because you are in business, does not mean you need a lawyer for all things legal. With a little help and resourcefulness, you can tackle many issues on your own. However, legal mistakes are costly, and every business is unique. An initial consultation with a lawyer may be a good idea to help you determine the complexity of your specific legal needs and how to proceed.

Name Your Business

Choosing a name for your business seems like a simple task, but there is actually a fair amount of work involved. First you should conduct a search to ensure the name is not already claimed in your state. The Secretary of State’s office usually has a database you can quickly search online. Once you ensure your desired business name is available, you will need to file for a “Doing Business As” (DBA) name, unless you are using your legal name. Before filing for an official name, however, you should check to see if you can get a good, unique URL for your website as your presence on the web is just as important as your physical presence.

Claim Trademarks

If your business requires a trademark, you can search the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s search tool to see if a similar name or variation already exists. You can even claim a trademark online without the assistance of a lawyer.

Choose Your Legal Business Structure

Choosing your legal business structure is another task you can do on your own. There are plenty of resources online, including Financial Safety Net, where you can find information on the various types of business structures such as sole proprietorships and corporations. Forming a partnership or a limited liability company (LLC) can be done without legal assistance. Although, you may want to consult an attorney about the ramifications to your individual business, particularly legal and tax implications, and to review legally binding contracts or documentation.

Apply for Licenses and Permits

Depending on the nature of your business, you may need certain city, state, or federal licenses and permits. You can apply for licenses and permits, register your business for tax purposes, and apply for an Employer Identification Number (EIN) without the assistance of a lawyer. You can even complete most of these tasks online. Just be sure you know exactly what licenses and permits you need for your unique business, and how often you need to renew them.

Create Contracts and Agreements

Customer contracts, partner or vendor agreements, non-disclosure agreements (NDAs), and buy-sell agreements can all be prepared without the assistance of a lawyer. You or any non-legal professional can draft contracts and agreements saving you some time and money spent with the lawyer. There are many online tools to assist you with most types of documents. However, and we can’t stress this enough, it is imperative you have your lawyer review the draft contract or agreement to ensure that it is worded correctly and that it is legally binding.

Hire Employees or Independent Contractors

You do not need a lawyer to help you hire employees or independent contractors. What you do need, however, are clear rules and contracts to minimize your chance of being sued by a disgruntled employee down the road. You also need to understand the difference between employees and contractors and treat them as such. If you ignore the rules and blur the lines, the IRS can force you to reclassify your contractors as employees. To avoid this, make sure you have a knowledgeable human resources (HR) professional to guide you. If you do not, you can always consult with your lawyer if you need help writing HR contracts and policies.

When to Hire a Lawyer

Lawyers are always willing to take on or provide guidance on any of the issues above, but it may benefit you to save your money for more complex issues, especially if you are a small business with a limited budget. Here are some legal issues that you should hire qualified legal representation.

Forming a Corporation

While you can often take care of the formation of a legal business entity on your own, forming a corporation is a more complex process. Forming a corporation involves many different tax and legal requirements that can be difficult to interpret. Tax and filing mistakes can be costly, so it’s best to pay a professional for these services.

Filing a Patent

If you are seeking a patent for a product you will need to work with a patent lawyer. Filing for a patent is an expensive and time-consuming process that can take years. Make sure it’s worth the money, time, and effort. You only need to patent a product if it will give you considerable market advantage. If you decide to go through the process, a patent lawyer can help you get the product evaluated and explain your rights.

Litigation Representation

There are many instances where it’s perfectly acceptable to represent yourself in court. For example, you don’t need to pay a lawyer to sue your landlord for your $500 security deposit in small claims. You may need a lawyer for more formal proceedings like consumer law suits. The law can be quite complicated and lawyers are trained to know all the rules and procedures, and the best way to help you with your situation. If you hire a good lawyer, you should expect a positive result with little work on your part. After all, you are paying them for their expertise.

Whether you choose to go the DIY route or hire a qualified lawyer, you need to know where to go for sound legal advice. The American Bar Association publishes The Consumer’s Guide to Legal Help and that is a good place to start. Your state bar association should be able to provide you with referral lists and helpful information to guide you down the right path. There are also numerous online legal resources targeted to the general public. Saving a few bucks is always desirable, but if in doubt, err on the side of caution and hire a qualified legal professional.

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