NEARLY EVERY MOVE A BUSINESS MAKES is open to a host of complicated legal consequences. That's why it's important to establish a relationship with the right law firm right away.
"Even at the very onset of establishing a business, the first thing you should be doing is hiring a lawyer to do the articles of incorporation or form a limited liability corporation (LLC)," says Kateri Walsh, community relations administrator for the Oregon State Bar. "The earlier, the better."
But choosing a law firm can be as confusing as the law itself. To start your search, consider the unique needs of your business. Walsh says specialization is becoming more common, so it's important to seek out a lawyer who knows the law as it pertains to your specific area of business.
You also have to decide whether you'd prefer to work with a big or small law firm. Small firms are often more cost effective and can offer a more intimate relationship with your counsel, but larger firms are more likely to have a range of legal experts who can carry your business through all the different challenges it might face as it grows, Walsh says.
To get an idea of specific firms you'd like to check out, ask around.
"Ask your friends, acquaintances, family members and other business owners about their experience with different lawyers," Walsh says. "A word-of-mouth recommendation is often very, very helpful."
It's also a good idea to do a background check on any lawyers you are considering.
Disciplinary records for all attorneys in the state are available through the OSB and can be accessed over the phone, online or in person.
When you've narrowed your search to a few promising candidates, set up interviews to ask questions and get a sense of each firm's style. Be sure to ask how you will be charged, how you can communicate with your lawyer, and if there is anything you can do to minimize costs.
Businesses with limited resources can still get legal help, says Lisa LeSage, associate dean and director of Business Law Programs at Lewis & Clark Law School. The school's Small Business Legal Clinic, staffed by experienced lawyers who supervise legal interns, provides services to low-income and women- and minority-owned small businesses on a sliding fee scale.
The clinic's pro bono project offers free services for low-income businesses. Large law firms sometimes have pro bono departments that consider clients on a case-by-case basis,
and small-business development centers can also provide referrals to lawyers who will do free or reduced-fee work. Just because you're not paying full price doesn't mean you won't get good representation.
"Pro bono doesn't mean poor quality at all," LeSage says.