Whether you are just getting started or have been in business for a number of years, chances are that you will need the expertise of an attorney. One of the most common complaints that lawyers make is, "why didn't you get me involved before you signed...?" Some small business owners think that by doing without legal help they will save money. In reality, they may pay much more in the long run. Its wiser to seek advice on the front end in order to minimize the risk of costly mistakes or litigation later on. This section addresses some of the many ways in which a lawyer can help a small business owner.
Form of Organization and Business Name
A lawyer can help you determine the form of organization that is best for your business and assist you with the necessary paperwork, whether you're just starting your business or have been in business for a while. In addition to sole proprietorships, corporations and partnerships, most states permit limited liability corporations. The form of organization you choose may affect many aspects of your business, including estate planning, tax planning and liability in litigation. A lawyer can also help you ensure that your business name is preserved for your use only.
Believe it or not, leases are frequently negotiable. A lawyer can review your lease to make sure that it fairly allocates rights and responsibilities between lessor and lessee and that it covers most of the situations that could cause problems in the future. For example, many leases do not include provisions allocating responsibility for repair of improvements and for upgrades to comply with new building codes. A lawyer can discuss with you such things as the advantages and disadvantages of a no-fault lease and the items that should be included in the definition of operating expenses.
Here is some more information on leases to help you know what questions you may want to review with a lawyer: Leasing office space
Many businesses enter into contracts with employees, customers, suppliers and others. As with commercial leases, a lawyer can assist with drafting and/or review of such contracts to make sure that they comply with applicable laws, that they are fair, and that they anticipate problems that could be caused by such things as price fluctuations, bankruptcy, war or natural disasters. A good lawyer may even be able to help you negotiate contracts setting up creative business relationships that could help your business financially.
Managing employees includes hiring, firing, working conditions, sick time, overtime, medical leave, employee benefits, and an employee's privacy rights. A lawyer can assist with review and/or drafting of employee contracts, can help you develop employment policies, and can make certain that your business is complying with applicable employment laws.
Estate Planning for Your Business
If you die without a will or a trust dictating what should happen to your personal assets, those assets will probably remain in your family anyway, going to a spouse or a child. Unfortunately, depending on your form of organization, the legal system may not know what to do with your business when you die if you haven't put your plans in writing. The administrator of your estate may be forced to sell off any assets of the business and let your employees go, even if you wanted your business to continue after your death. The solution is to do some estate planning for your business.
Intellectual Property Rights
Intellectual property includes trade secrets and trademarks, as well as copyrights and patents. Something as simple as a customer list may be a trade secret if its confidentiality is maintained. A lawyer may be able to help you identify and protect your intellectual property rights.
Financing and Credit
As with other kinds of contracts, you may want to have a lawyer review loan agreements. In addition, a lawyer may be able to advise you about the laws governing debt collection practices.
Both federal and state laws limit unfair and deceptive advertising practices and prohibit discrimination in advertisements. For example, a product typically may not be labeled "new" after six months, you may not advertise a "fire sale" unless your business has had a fire, and you may not have a "going-out-of business sale" unless your business is really closing its doors. A lawyer can review any proposed advertising to make sure it is in compliance with applicable laws.
Compliance with Regulations
Depending on the kind of business you have. there may be specific regulations that apply to you. For example, many states regulate hair salons and tanning salons. There are also regulations that may apply to you if you are in the food service business. If you make or sell a consumer product, you must comply with the reporting requirements of the Consumer Product Safety Act. You may want to consult a lawyer to determine if any special laws apply to your business.
You probably know that you should seek legal assistance if you want to sue or are being sued. What many people don't realize is that they have a much better chance of avoiding litigation if they seek timely advice from a lawyer about the many aspects of running their business.
How to Select a Lawyer discusses practical tips on finding the right lawyer for your business.