BIZ BASICS: Legal help doesn't have to cost a fortune

June 26, 2006

We're a start-Q: up and constantly need answers to basic legal questions about business structures, the hiring process, contracts, wages, safety, trademarks and more, but can't afford expensive lawyers. What are some options?

Legal issues often present a dilem-A:ma for cost-conscious small businesses, especially startups. You want the best information but paying legal professionals for every little thing gets expensive.

The range of legal issues facing entrepreneurs is immense, from naming a business and obtaining licenses to complying with tax laws and understanding wage and benefit regulations.

Make no mistake: Paid, professional legal advice is vital in many circumstances. If you are stumped, find a lawyer (the resources below can help) and get the answers you need.

But there are some excellent Web-based do-it-yourself legal solutions for small business that offer free or low-cost help for solving everyday legal matters-or at least learning enough about them to work more efficiently with a lawyer.

One of the best free sites is FindLaw for Small Business, www.smallbusiness.findlaw.com. It offers detailed, plain-English legal information in six main topic areas: Starting a business

Incorporation and legal structures

Employment and human resources Intellectual property

Finances and taxes

Forms and contracts.

Go to any section and you'll find a breakdown of topics with helpful advice and answers to frequently asked legal questions. In the employment section, for example, you can quickly learn the legal requirements on family medical leave, jury duty, and other matters.

The forms and contracts section is packed with real-life examples and templates that you can download free and adapt to your own business. These include popular items such as debt-collection letters, employment forms and incorporation documents, plus industry-specific forms and contracts that are often the full-text documents of actual business agreements. FindLaw can also help you can find a suitable lawyer. Browse business lawyers by state and type of practice. Or submit your needs through Findlaw's "Legal Connection" service that will hook you up with the appropriate attorney.

If you click the "Get Help Now" tab, the site offers information on why and when you might need a business attorney. FindLaw is an extremely helpful site that lives up to its billing as the most-visited legal portal on the Internet.

The resources below also provide legal help for small business:

The NFIB Legal Foundation (www.nfiblegal.com) offers excellent legal help tools for small business, available free online, including: Small Business Guide to Document Retention, Federal Employment Law Handbook, Tips for Hiring a Lawyer and others.

The U.S. Small Business Administration Web site has helpful advice on business law, tax and many other legal topics. Visit www.sba.govand look in "Starting Your Business," "Financing Your Business" and "Managing Your Business."

Nolo is the leading publisher of do-ityourself legal solutions for small business. Nolo's specialized legal books for small business cover just about any topic you might need, from incorporation to taxes to small-claims court. Look in the "Business & Human Resources" section of the Web site for a list of titles as well as business forms and featured articles on legal topics. There's a helpful glossary of terms under "Tools & Resources." Visit www.nolo.com.

Business.gov, the official business link to federal government, helps smallbusiness owners identify and solve legal and regulatory questions. It covers all federal agencies and has handy sections for tapping information by region or industry. Click on "Region" and then your state for information on state and local tax and legal requirements such as sales taxes, permits and licenses. Business.gov aims to provide knowledge of basic legal issues so you can identify potential problems early and take action. For a site run by the government, this is surprisingly well done.

Kehrer is editor at Business.com, a business search engine. He can be reached at editor@business.com.
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