All businesses have legal issues to contend with regardless of their size. While the legal needs of a Fortune 500 company are likely very different from those of a brand-new small business, they’re legal needs all the same. And they all come at a cost.
Lawyers’ fees can range from $100 to $400 an hour depending on who they are, where they’re located, the type and complexity of the legal issue you need help with, and more. Starting a small business isn’t cheap and the first few years are rarely profitable. So, often small businesses forgo important legal help in order to cut costs.
Sometimes it’s not even cost-cutting measures that keep small businesses from getting legal help. Sometimes the cost is simply so high that getting legal help isn’t financially feasible. However, expert legal help on the front end can often mitigate potentially large (and even more costly) legal issues later on.
9 ways to find free or low-cost legal help for your small business
Enter free and low-cost legal services for small businesses. Yes, you read that right. It’s absolutely a thing. Here are 9 ways to find free (or low-cost) legal help for your small business.
1. Your local small business association
Small business associations, or SBAs, exist to help small businesses like yours. While you will likely have to be a member of your local small business association to reap its benefits, those benefits often include free access to lawyers.
Plus, forking over the cash for an SBA membership comes with a number of other benefits as well. Those may include mentorship opportunities and discounts on business-related products and services.
2. Your local chamber of commerce
Chambers of commerce are dedicated to advocating for and helping businesses, especially small businesses. Many chambers offer free or low-cost access to lawyers who are available to help address small business issues in general but issues specific to your area or municipality as well.
It’s the same as with small business associations, though — you’ll likely have to be a member of your local chamber of commerce in order to enjoy the benefits it offers. But if cost is a factor, the price of a chamber of commerce membership is going to be far lower than hiring a lawyer directly.
Not sure whether or not your area has a chamber of commerce? The U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s website can help you look that up.
3. Local non-profit organizations
Especially if you live in a big city, there are likely several non-profit organizations that offer free legal help. But non-profits also operate on state, regional, and national scales, so don’t limit yourself only to what’s locally available. (Although the more local you can get, the better—they’ll likely have a better understanding of local legal issues that small businesses face.)
For example, LegalCORPS is a Minnesota non-profit that provides free legal assistance to “low-income entrepreneurs and innovators and small nonprofits in Minnesota.” This program is run entirely with volunteer lawyers, of which they have over 500 on their roster who service more than 900 clients each year.
Non-profits also operate on state, regional, and national scales, so don’t limit yourself only to what’s locally available.
In Pittsburgh, there’s a small business legal assistance program that local businesses can take advantage of. In the Bay Area there’s Legal Services for Entrepreneurs.
If you’re a small business owner and also a woman, person of color, refugee, or member of another often marginalized group, consider looking for identity-specific help.
African American Grants, for example, has a long list of 53 grants available to Black women-owned businesses in 2022. That could be a great place to start to look for funding for legal help and other startup costs for new small businesses.
4. Local law schools
Law schools are a great way to find free or low-cost legal services in exchange for working with new lawyers looking for experience.
In Minnesota, for example, the Minnesota Justice Foundation notes that all law schools encourage their students to do at least 50 hours of pro bono work while in law school. So, the foundation works to match students with local opportunities.
Consider getting in touch with local law schools in your area to see if they offer pro bono services. Who knows? Maybe a professor would be interested in taking on your case if they can use it as teachable material.
5. The American Bar Association
The American Bar Association is a professional association that’s responsible, in part, for accrediting law schools. Their website has a whole section on where to find everything from legal aid to pro bono services and free legal answers across the country.
6. Your Secretary of State
While your Secretary of State’s office might not be the best resource for full-blown legal advice, it’s a great resource for information on state-related matters like incorporation or forming an LLC.
Secretary of State offices are also a great resource for other local business requirements and regulations (think licenses and permits) that you might need.
7. Pro bono services in your area
After the uprising that took place after George Floyd’s murder in Minneapolis, some local law firms began offering pro bono legal services to businesses that were damaged in the process.
Dorsey, Dorsey, & Whitney LLP, for example, teamed up with LegalCORPS to offer a four-part webinar series about rebuilding after the uprising. Topics covered everything from insurance claims and available grant programs to taking questions directly from webinar attendees.
This is just one specific instance of pro bono services. Consider calling local law firms to ask if they do pro bono work for small businesses. If they don’t, ask them if they know of anyone who does — lawyers are in a great position to know about legal resources.
8. The Federal Trade Commission
While the Federal Trade Commission, or FTC, is chiefly charged with protecting consumers from deceptive business and advertising practices, it happens to also have a ton of useful business guidance information on its website. They offer information on complying with the commission’s laws across advertising, credit, privacy, and more.
While it’s likely not going to be free legal help, it can be a great place to start educating yourself on your business’s legal needs.
9. The Internal Revenue Service
Believe it or not, the IRS does more than just take tax money from you. The Internal Revenue Service has an entire Small Business and Self-Employed Tax Center. The center is full of information on everything from structuring your business to preparing and filing your taxes.
There are 2 particularly useful sections. One is the section on the various stages of owning a business from opening one to closing one.
The other is the general topics section. It offers broader guidance ranging from breaking down the Affordable Care Act to explaining the gig economy and retirement plans for small businesses and self-employed people.
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Legal help is available for small businesses
Finding and getting the free or low-cost legal help you need for your small business can be a challenge. It takes time and work to find the right resource for your small business’s legal needs.
But there is help out there! You just have to know where to look. Chances are, if you start with some of the resources listed here, you’ll soon be on your way towards the help you need.
Then, once you get some legal help the first time, you’ll know exactly where to go when legal needs pop up again. Plus, once your business takes off, you’ll know who to hire and support — the people who also dedicate their time to helping small businesses in need.
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