Did you know that on average business lawyers charge anywhere from $100 per hour in a rural area or small town to more than $1,000+ per hour in a big city at an elite law firm? It’s true.
Getting legal advice isn’t cheap, and it is often out of reach for most small businesses that are just starting up. However, saying you don’t have the cash for legal assistance and ignoring things is simply not an option; the risks are far too great.
In fact, there are many legal challenges in business you can face, including protecting your intellectual property (e.g., patents, trademarks and copyrights), warding off lawsuits that could potentially land you in court and much, much more.
Given the cost of hiring a lawyer and the risks you can face, it’s no surprise that many start-ups and small business owners want to know if there is free legal help for their business. The good news is that there are plenty of free resources available where you can get sound legal aid and questions answered by the experts.
This guide showcases 12 of the best places to go for free legal assistance to help you get the answers and guidance you need when you need it. Of course, there is no one-size-fits-all legal approach, so do a good deal of research before you find the solution that fits you and your company.
Why Advice from Legal Services is so Important in Business
The laws pertaining to business can be complex and hard to understand, especially for small businesses that are just starting out. And even though laws pertaining to business can be tough to understand sometimes, it’s important to get them right.
Here are five critical reasons to start seeking legal advice for your small business:
- It will help you form the right business structure: The business structure you choose will have a significant impact on your tax obligations, business liability and operational costs.
- You’ll have a better understanding of your legal obligations and risks: Ignorance of the law is no excuse, and as a business owner you have a legal responsibility to understand your obligations and risks.
- It can help you avoid costly disputes: Disputes with employees, customers, or suppliers can be extremely costly for small businesses. Legal aid can help you resolve these disputes without them turning into expensive legal battles.
- To avoid costly mistakes: When drafting important contracts and agreements good legal counsel can help you avoid costly mistakes, such as including clauses that are unenforceable or illegal.
- Prevent violations: If you don’t know what the law says and how it applies to your business, you’ll likely violate them. Legal counsel will help you avoid running into legal issues such as fines, penalties or even litigation where you may get dragged into court.
12 Best Places to Find Free Legal Advice Online
Now that you’ve seen why legal advice is so important, the next step is to find the right people who can help you and provide you with the right answers. There are a lot of resources online, but some of them charge quite a bit of money or grant limited access. Luckily, there are plenty of free places on the internet where you can get some solid legal recommendations from experts and professionals.
Next, we’ve listed the 12 of the best places to get legitimate and free legal help online.
1. The Small Business Association (SBA)
One of the best places to find free legal help is through your area’s small business association. For example, many local SBAs offer members access to a panel of lawyers who can answer questions about specific legal issues affecting small businesses.
You’ll usually have to be a member of the association to get access to this type of service, but it’s usually worth it. Some associations offer other benefits as well, such as discounts on business products and services, training opportunities for employees, mentorship programs for entrepreneurs and workshops designed specifically to help small businesses succeed in their local area. Additionally, most of these local organizations have a website that lists their contact information and membership fees (if any).
2. Your Local Chamber of Commerce
Another place where you can get free legal advice is your local chamber of commerce. Many chambers offer members access to lawyers who can answer questions about specific legal issues affecting small businesses in their area, as well as other benefits.
Just like with your local small business association, you’ll usually have to be a member of the chamber to get access to this type of service. However, there are some chambers that offer free membership for entrepreneurs who are just starting out. You can find your local chamber of commerce by visiting the website of an organization like the United States Chamber of Commerce or contacting the nearest Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for help.
3. Local Non-Profit Agencies
Non-profits are a great resource for free legal help. Many non-profit organizations offer services such as business law clinics, workshops on starting your own small business or connecting entrepreneurs with mentors who can help them navigate their way through employment law and the process of opening up shop.
These programs will often be run by lawyers and other professionals in the community who are passionate about helping small businesses succeed. There are also non-profit agencies and organizations that give legal help and services free or at reduced costs to specific groups like minorities, the military and veterans and people with disabilities.
4. The Secretary of State
If you’re looking for information about starting a business in your state, the Secretary of State is a good place to start. Most states have websites that offer detailed information about how to form and register a business in their area.
Some states also offer online legal resources such as templates for articles of incorporation or LLC formation documents, which you can use to get started. You can search and get contact information for the Secretary of State where your business is located on the National Association of Secretaries of State website.
Small businesses should also be aware of their state’s laws and regulations, as well as any licenses or permits that may be required to operate in that area. You can find this type of information on your state’s website for the Secretary of State or by contacting the Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for assistance.
5. Attorney Communities
Attorney communities allow you to look up helpful legal information or bounce your legal question off their members in an “ask a lawyer” fashion. These companies operate a lot like a consultation with a professional attorney in the way that they provide information that skims the surface to get you started. You will get help here that consists of licensed attorneys who answer questions based on their practice area.
They include the following (bear in mind that some of the companies on this list limit their services to people with low incomes):
- Inc Authority
- Law Help Interactive
Although they aren’t perfect, these Q&A communities will start you on the right path and help you avoid what could turn into a legal issue. Many of these services also offer low-cost plans by the month and by the year for more detailed legal help. These plans often come with a free trial, so you can try out their legal resources in more detail before you decide if it’s the right option for you.
6. The Federal Trade Commission
The Federal Trade Commission is a government agency that deals with issues related to business and advertising. One of their primary functions is to protect consumers from unfair or deceptive practices by businesses. They also have a wealth of information on their website about credit & finance, how to start and run a small business, including topics like trademarks, copyrights, and e-commerce for selected industries.
7. The Internal Revenue Service
The Internal Revenue Service has a comprehensive Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center page, which provides small companies legal recommendations on various matters on anything from filing tax returns to the ins and out of how the ACA works to specific tax reforms that could impact your company. Also, they have an online e-file system for filing taxes electronically, which is convenient if you’re not comfortable filling out forms by hand or don’t want to take the time needed with paper filing.
Another government agency to use besides the IRS is the U.S. Department of Justice (DOJ). The DOJ provides free legal advice for small and disadvantaged businesses through its Small Business Legal Clinic Program, which offers attorneys who specialize in advising small-business owners on a variety of topics, including intellectual property rights and contract law.
8. Online Law Libraries
If you’re looking for a more in-depth understanding of business and corporate law resources, an online law library might be a good resource for you. Although they aren’t free, these libraries are often maintained by private companies or organizations and offer access to their entire collection of legal resources for a very low monthly or yearly subscription fee.
CALI is Computer-Assisted Legal Instructions written by law professors at CALI-sponsored educational institutions. You can use it to study several business law topics. The interactive tutorials featured in the CALI law library database can be used as lessons for reading up on specific business legal topics, such as sales and leases, secured transactions and negotiable instruments and other payment systems.
9. Pro Bono Clinics
Pro Bono lawyers are students who are affiliated with a legal aid organization. They volunteer at legal assistance clinics at no cost. They are part of internship programs that help law students gain professional ethics and gain a deep understanding of their responsibility to their community.
In addition, you can use the SuperLawyers website to search for pro bono attorneys that will provide you with free legal aid if you can’t afford a lawyer. Likewise, you can use the American Bar Association’s website about pro bono lawyer support questions. They must be non-criminal questions, though. However, keep in mind that there is often an income threshold for getting help in this manner.
10. Business Law Websites
Websites such as FindLaw and Nolo publish information about laws related to business and offer a variety of resources, including articles, blog posts, videos, and even e-books on various legal topics. They also have searchable databases of attorneys who practice in specific areas of the law, so you can find a business attorney who’s right for your needs. You’ll also find information about specific topics like employment laws, intellectual property, and small business taxes on these websites.
The owners of these websites understand legal assistance can be very expensive for small businesses which is why they provide legal advice at little or no cost.
For example, Nolo.com offers a free online course about the basics of business-related laws for small businesses, which you can take at your own pace or find out more by checking out their website.
FindLaw also offers a free online course on legal matters and resources for small businesses and entrepreneurs. This one is geared specifically toward helping new business owners get started with their ventures and includes information like how to form an LLC or corporation, what kind of licenses and permits you need to run a business in your state, how to hire employees instead of contractors (and vice versa), etc.
11. Law Schools
Some law schools offer their legal services for free or at reduced costs to individuals or startups. Here, students studying law and instructors that teach legal curriculum can give you basic guidance and answers about any legal issue that you have. Similar to how it is with pro bono lawyers, helping businesses in this way gives law students knowledge of real-world experiences and a sense of community as they work toward finishing school.
Note that supervision of these law students is provided by legal organizations and professional attorneys since the students aren’t licensed yet. It is unethical for them to independently give anyone or an entity free (or paid) legal advice until they receive their degrees.
In addition, there are law school clinics that are geared to serving a clientele of small businesses, sole proprietors and entrepreneurs, which means that you can potentially receive complimentary help from the right lawyer about legal questions pertaining to your business.
You can find a list of clinics near you by visiting the website of the American Bar Association or your state bar association. You can also Google “law school clinic” followed by your city or town’s name. For example, if you live in Atlanta, search for “law school clinic Atlanta”.
If you can’t find answers to what you’re looking for, try contacting your local economic development office or the nearest Small Business Development Center (SBDC) for help.
12. Free Consultations with Lawyers
For free legal assistance, most local lawyers will provide an initial consultation at no charge or give you low-cost legal counsel. This initial chat could possibly assist you in:
- Gaining more understanding and insight into the information you’ve collected so far.
- Receiving answers to the questions you have regarding the legal aspects of owning and running a company.
You don’t have to sit down in an office to talk to them about your legal issue, either. Instead, you can consult with real lawyers for free 24/7 through their online chat features.
Their areas of expertise could include laws about business, along with family law, personal injury law, family law, litigation, bankruptcy, patents, trademarks and more, meaning they could give free answers and legal help to you on a business and personal level.
Attorney consultations are excellent starting points if the matter your want to discuss is not too complex. They are also good if you need a good starting point on some basic areas of your business. Meanwhile, as your company gets bigger, the more complex its operations and legalities get. b12q b q2As you probably know, “free lunches” rarely exist in life, and eventually, time will run out on an attorney’s generosity (usually at around the 30-minute mark of the consultation).
In that case, it’s better to pay for future consultation and retain a lawyer rather than attempt to handle complex legal matters by yourself.
What is the best company to use to get answers to my legal questions free?
This is an excellent question…but it’s not so simple to answer. To explain, there are many companies out there that offer free legal advice, and they all have their pros and cons.
For example, some of these companies will give you generic answers to your legal questions (which may be helpful if all you need is general information). Others may have attorneys on staff who will provide more specific legal help, but you may need to be a member of their organization in order to get this help.
There are also some companies that offer free legal consultations specifically for small businesses. This can be a great option if you want to sit down with an attorney and discuss your business in detail. However, keep in mind that these consultations are usually very short, and you may not be able to receive answers to all of your questions.
Finally, some companies offer free legal advice in the form of online resources or articles. This can be a great way to learn more about specific topics, but it’s important to remember that these resources should not be relied on as being the same as the legal recommendations you’d get from a professional attorney.
Take LegalZoom for example, the company has a good rating with the Better Business Bureau and on review sites such as TrustPilot. However, they are not lawyers and can’t practice law. Therefore, they are no substitute for a professional attorney.
Think of “Ask a Lawyer” sites like LegalZoom as more of a DIY portal to legal documents and FAQs. Still, they can be excellent resources for forming an LLC, business registration, trademark protection or other similar small business needs.
If you are forming your business, Inc Authority is the best for-profit company mentioned in this guide since they offer both LLC formation services and a year of registered agent service for free.
On the other hand, we saw that business programs at local non-profits are often managed by lawyers and other professionals, so that is another good resource you can tap into for several types of legal questions and assistance.
Where is the best place to find free legal advice about criminal law relating to business?
Pro bono lawyers are a good place to start when it comes to free advice about your business. legal issue. But who you ultimately go to for legal advice is going to depend on the nature of the criminal matter in question. Many online resources, including the ABA, will not answer any questions related to criminal legalities whatsoever.
For instance, if you want to ask something about workers’ compensation when it comes to potential wrongdoings, an “Ask a Lawyer” website is not qualified to help you. Also, it would be unethical to answer questions like this since they are not technically lawyers.
Unfortunately, business attorneys say that the majority of business owners come to them when they are already in legal trouble. That’s not a good best practice, and it’s also expensive. More importantly, it’s not really an area you want to skimp on for your business.
Many of these organizations offer free or low-cost legal aid, and they can connect you with attorneys who specialize in criminal law relating to a business. You can also find general information on these organizations’ websites such as how to file a trademark and where to find free legal advice about criminal law relating to business.
For example, you might be able to get help with debt collection issues, intellectual property rights (trademarks), or even employment laws if they are relevant for your business. The Small Business Development Center has resources for small business owners on a variety of topics, including taxes and legal issues related to starting up your own company.
If you don’t want to run into legal issues, then it’s essential to get some legal advice from a professional business lawyer as early as possible in the process. After all, laws change and can be complex, so it’s important to have an up-to-date understanding of them.
Also, many attorneys will work with you regarding your bill. For instance, they could put you on a payment plan or work with you on a contingency basis.
So, be sure to get the legal assistance you need—free or otherwise. That, along with some good business insurance, will go a long way toward protecting your business.
And—good luck in your business endeavors!
This article, “12 Places to Find Free Legal Advice for Your Business” was first published on Small Business Trends