When to Hire an Accountant or Lawyer (and when to Do It Yourself)!


Why Hire an Accountant?

An accountant can save you time and clear up much of the confusion you experience when it comes to managing your finances and taxes, but a trusted accountant can provide other benefits too.

  • Act as a Trusted Advisor – More than just a tax preparer, an accountant can become a trusted advisor to your small business, helping you manage cash flow, plan for growth, assess risk, and keep your books in order.

  • Help Balance Business and Personal Needs – Many small businesses, particularly sole proprietors and startups, find that their business and personal finances are closely linked. A good accountant can help you make sound judgments beneficial to both.

How to Find an Accountant

Referrals are often the best way to find an accountant you can trust. Network and mingle at local business events hosted by your local Chamber of Commerce, Small Business Development Center, or other small business organizations. Ask other business owners for referrals and even meet accountants. Your state accounting society can also connect you to CPAs.

Interviewing Candidates

Once you have a short list, schedule a free initial consultation to help determine whether your candidates are the right fit for your needs: Some questions to ask include:

What’s your experience with small businesses? Small businesses have dynamic and sometimes complex accounting needs and few resources to manage them. An accountant who understands these dynamics and has a solid small business client base will likely serve your needs better in the long run. You’ll also want to know that your accountant has experience with businesses that are structured like yours – whether you are a sole proprietor, LLC, partnership, or corporation.

What experience do you have with my industry? Ideally, your accountant should have knowledge of your industry. Many accountants specialize in certain industries such as franchising, real estate, construction or exporting. Again, get referrals from others in your industry.

Do you do more than tax preparation? If you need help with tax filing, then a tax preparer is the way to go. But if you want long-term strategic advice to help you manage your small business finances, be sure to ask about the range of value-add services, such as business valuation, budgeting and forecasting, bookkeeping, risk assessment, and small business startup advice.

Who will I be working with? If your accountant is to become a trusted advisor, then you want to know from the outset who exactly you’ll be working with. A smaller firm, where a partner or owner handles the bulk of the work, is often a better choice for small businesses looking for a long-term advisory relationship. The alternative is a larger firm, where you are handed off to a junior accountant after the initial handshake. Other things to consider as you compare your candidates are:

  • Flexibility and responsiveness – are they willing to visit your business premises for quarterly reviews? How quickly will they respond to queries or requests?

  • Fees and charges

  • Value-add services that you may want in the future, such as audit support or CFO services.

  • Professional qualifications, licenses (CPAs are distinguished from other accounting practitioners by strict licensing regulations), and references

Remember...

You are the person who is ultimately responsible for your taxes and finances. Be wary of accountants who promise things that seem too good to be true. If you have concerns about an accountant's claims, you should contact your state's Board of Accountancy. You can file a complaint against a tax preparer at the IRS Office of Professional Responsibility.


Why hire a Lawyer?

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.

  1. 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.


  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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:

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. Buying or Selling a Business – Lawyers can help with negotiating sales agreements, lease agreements, and more.

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