Photo by Adeolu Eletu
Onboarding the right lawyer to join your company’s team, or researching one as you start out in your business, can seem intimidating if you’re not familiar with the process.
But learning about the legal landscape and selecting the right representation can not only help get your business up and running, it can also help prevent legal troubles in the future. Here are some tips to help get you started.
Establish Your Business’s Needs
When determining legal representation, it’s important to first consider what you may or may not need a lawyer for.
Here are some instances where you may need one:
- Reviewing, drafting, and/or negotiating contracts, from employee agreements, suppliers, leases, etc.
- Navigating liability issues
- Understanding state and federal compliance requirements
- Licensing intellectual property for your brand
- Creating documents for managing employees to avoid discrimination, termination issues, etc.
- Knowing yourself and what your business values are will also guide what lawyer will be best for your success.
Arielle Clark is the owner of Sis Got Tea in Louisville, Kentucky, an online loose-leaf tea shop and future brick-and-mortar LGBTQ+ friendly café, currently in the fundraising stage.
Clark started the business to create a sober space for LGBTQ+ people, she says. Her first Pride event as a teenager was sponsored by an alcohol brand, and most LGBTQ+ friendly spaces near Louisville were bars. After turning 21 years old, she still found that these spaces were alcohol-centric, and dreamed of a place where she and her friends could connect regardless of their age, personal life, religion, or medical status.
“A lot of bars are not ADA friendly,” says Clark. “I wanted a space where all of those folks could come together, and respect the intersectionality of Black and LGBTQ+ folks.”
In college, Clark remembers thinking of the pun “LGBTea” with a group of her friends. That thought became a plan to open an intersectional tea shop, which she achieved in August 2019.
Clark says she knew that Sis Got Tea would need a lawyer who is pro-LGBTQ+ and pro-Black. After seeing a friend post about Georgia Connally’s work for the LGBTQ+ community in Louisville, Clark brought her on board as the shop’s attorney.
“[Georgia] was really excited to have that first initial conversation with me, and we were both really excited about the concept,” says Clark. “She really loves tea as well, so we bonded on that, and we signed the contract. The rest is history!”
Understanding your business goals and your expectations are both key to finding the right attorney to bring on your team, she says.
“To find some that you are comfortable with, you have to be very upfront,” says Clark. “It was really fortunate that I found somebody that aligned with all the pieces of my business.”
If your staff is considering unionizing, business owners can consult with a management-side labor attorney.
For employees, you cannot be fired for trying to start a union. Contact a local union organizer for more information, or visit afl-cio.org.
Do Your Research
Before deciding on representation, it’s good to do some preliminary online research, ask friends for referrals, and even take time to speak to a couple lawyers, whether by phone, email, or video chat.
Jim Hillas is a Portland, Oregon-based business lawyer who specializes in counseling business owners on starting, running, and selling their businesses.
When researching what legal services are available in your area, start by looking up state bars, like the Oregon State Bar, suggests Hillas, because they often have online referral services.
“Also consider doing in-depth research online [about a particular lawyer],” he says, “because that will give you an initial vibe and a feel for someone. Then, I would call them and ask if they would do a free consultation with you. If they aren’t willing to do that, that is not a good sign for a cost-conscious small business owner that wants to start out with the right lawyer for them.”
Hillas encourages interviewing several candidates before deciding to move forward with one.
“Look for a problem solver,” he says. “Lawyers are like doctors—they can do a lot of things, but if they don’t know to ask questions and know what the real situation is, it is hard for them to know what to do. Don’t be afraid to tell your lawyer things that are embarrassing or what you think makes you look bad. If lawyers only know half the problem, they can’t give good recommendations. You have to be willing to disclose the good, the bad, and the ugly if you want practical advice. And also know that what you say to your lawyer is confidential and can’t be disclosed.”
In some cases, a specialist may be needed to be contacted depending on the legal situation.
Dan Cox, from Dan Cox & Associates, serves as a hot beverage spill litigation consultant, helping businesses protect their customers, brand, and bottom line by preventing hot beverage spills and defending them should a spill burn happen. Cox has worked on more than 50 hot spill/burn lawsuits and testified in numerous trials as an expert.
When an accident happens, his advice is to “capture as many details as possible,” so your insurance and possible legal counsel will know how to help you.
“Also, look into ‘retail litigation,’” he says. “Corporate lawyers will not be able to help in this situation. Look for those who can range in retail, wholesale…in the legal realm, there is a specialist that can be found for everything.”
Getting in touch with a lawyer preemptively before needing one could save a lot of time, energy, and headaches later on.
Bringing Connally on early in the start of Sis Got Tea was essential for Clark, she says, because she wanted to prepare for anything to happen in the process of getting her business off the ground.
“I believe wholeheartedly that the earlier you get advisory, the much, much better you’ll be, because you can be able to bring them into those conversations as they can get more familiar with your business,” she says. “I would rather preemptively do things and have a lawyer come on, than look back on things and thought I could have done this better.”
Lawyers can also find legal issues for business owners and work to advocate for you before actual problems or situations arise.
“When I got involved with Arielle, I was able to put together her merchandising contracts, her distributor contracts…things that she needed immediately that you’re just not going to be able to do that and foresee all the possibilities that a lawyer can,” says Connally. “You’re going to be able to understand your market, but that’s why it really has to be a team process—you tell me what you’re doing and what your needs are and explain some of the concerns that you have, and then together, we create a contract that can help you get off the ground. I know in Arielle’s case, we have used those original documents to really get her off the ground, and get her noticed, and grow her business into what it is starting to become today.”
Connally has also represented the employee side in discrimination cases, and says creating a strong message about values as a company can help avoid going to court.
“Put together really strong, inclusive messages that prevents discrimination,” says Connally. “When you’re hiring, when you’re finding people, you’re making crucial decisions about who to trust with your livelihood, which is what this really is. Those really need to be thought out decisions that convey your overall message.”
Costs & Affordability
Employing a lawyer can be a serious expense for business owners starting out.
To begin understanding what your operation can afford, prioritize communicating what you can afford, and what you are projected to make as a business.
“I was open with Georgia that I was a very, very small business startup,” says Clark. “We were able to work out an agreement that works for both of us financially.”
While online legal services may seem easy and affordable, there is “no substitute for having an actual lawyer relationship with someone you select and hire, who also knows your business,” says Hillas.
Asking for a lawyer to consider payment terms is one flexible option some may offer.
“If you are willing to give some money up front, there is a chance they’re willing to work with you on a plan,” he says. “Say you owe $1,000—maybe you can afford about $400 up front and work on a two-month plan of $300 payments, for example.”
Sis Got Tea’s Connally believes a lawyer who can get behind your brand will be the key to selecting one you can work with in the long term, financially and over the life of your business.
“What I see happen the most is that you go to one lawyer and they’re going to tell you a price, because not everyone will do those for free or reduced,” says Connally. “Don’t give up on finding somebody because not…every attorney is going to charge the same. Find some person who agrees with your business message, who believes in the potential of your business, and is willing to work with you because that person is going to do better work for you anyway.”
Although a lawyer’s résumé is important to look at, Connally affirms that a commitment to your business’s vision is invaluable.
“It is not going to be the years of experience that person has,” she says. “It’s going to be the connectedness that person can display to your message. That’s going to motivate that person to learn what they need to know and to fill in the gaps when necessary…if they’re motivated to do the best possible work.”