Ever wonder if you need to get a lawyer involved in a business matter?
A lawyer can help in many business scenarios, from helping with the incorporation process, drawing up contracts and if necessary, representing you in litigation. But is a lawyer always necessary? Or are there times when you are better off saving the big bucks and navigating legal processes on your own?
Here are some guidelines to help you know which legal business issues you can probably handle independently and when it’s really time to retain a lawyer.
Legal Issues You Can Handle on Your Own
This is not an exhaustive list, but it covers items you can probably take care of on your own, and government resources that can help. Each business is unique, and an initial consultation with a lawyer can help you determine the complexity of your own needs and how to proceed on many of these issues.
- Naming your business and claiming a trademark – The process of naming a business isn’t as simple as just picking a name and running with it. If you choose any name other than your own, you’ll need to file a “Doing Business As” Name. This guide explains how to: Register your Fictitious or “Doing Business As” Name. You should also check to see whether your choice for a URL (domain name) has been claimed already. You can do this on your own by searching the public WHOIS database of domain names. Once you have a unique domain name, follow these steps to claim it.
You can also search for and claim a trademark on your own. Use the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s trademark search tool to see if a similar name, or a variation of it, is trademarked. You can even claim a trademark yourself online.
- Legal structure for your business – Entering into a partnership agreement or forming an LLC can be done without legal assistance - although it's wise to consult an attorney about the ramifications to your individual business. You can also use the services of an online broker such as LegalZoom,MyCorporation, or The Company Corporation. These guides explain what you need to do.
- Filing and registering the paperwork to start a business – Most of the legal steps involved in starting a business can be handled without the help of a lawyer. This includes applying for the right licenses and permits, registering your business for tax purposes, and applying for an Employer Identification Number (EIN). This step-by-step guide from SBA.gov explains what you need to do.
- Creating contracts and non-disclosure agreements (NDA) – Customer contracts, partner or vendor agreements, and NDAs can all be prepared without the assistance of a lawyer.
- Creating buy-sell agreements – If you are in a business partnership or an LLC with multiple owners, you’ll need a buy-sell agreement in place to protect you, in case a co-owner dies or wants to transfer ownership. Read more in: Buy-Sell Agreements – Does my Business Really Need One?
Other aspects of business ownership that can be handled without a lawyer include hiring employees or independent contractors.
When it’s Time to Retain a Lawyer
While a lawyer and eager online brokers will be willing to help you with any of the items listed above, you'll need an attorney for more complex issues. These can include:
- Forming a corporation – While you can often take care of the formation of a legal business entity such as an LLC or business partnership without legal help, forming a corporation with shareholders and a board is a more complex process. Articles of incorporation can be filed without lawyers, but the administrative side of managing the complex tax and legal requirements often requires the services of a corporate attorney.
- Filing a Patent – Patents are expensive and time consuming. It can take years to get one approved. That’s why so often see “patent pending” messaging in the marketplace. So unless you are in the pharmaceutical or biotech industries, consider whether patenting your product actually gives you a major market advantage. Consult a patent attorney to help you evaluate your product and understand what rights you will achieve.
- Litigation – This can include dealing with lawsuits by current or former employees or customers, discrimination or harassment lawsuits, environmental lawsuits, government investigations for legal violations, etc.
- Buying or Selling a Business – Lawyers can help with negotiating sales agreements, lease agreements, and more.