The average hourly rate for a business lawyer can range anywhere from $100 per hour in a small town to more than $1,000 per hour for a senior partner at a big city law firm. Given these rates, it’s no wonder many small business owners want to know if it’s possible to get free legal advice for their business.
While free and cheap legal services aren’t easy to come by, they are available if you know where to look. Here’s our rundown of where to find free legal services, as well as some advice on when to enlist the help of a business lawyer.
Most small business owners begin looking for legal help only after they’ve been sued or have landed in legal hot water. The reality is that finding free legal advice can take some time, so it’s best to go this route only when you have time on your side.
If you have a legal emergency, need to meet a deadline, or if there’s a lot of risk or money on the table, it’s wise to consider hiring a lawyer as soon as possible and negotiating the best rate possible.
That being said, here are five ways to find free legal advice:
Most state bar associations, which are responsible for licensing attorneys in the state and regulating their work, have requirements for free or pro bono hours that lawyers have to complete each year. Lawyers can satisfy these requirements in multiple ways, and one way is by participating in free legal clinics and workshops.
Various organizations provide free legal aid:
Free legal aid clinics can fill up fast, so make sure you sign up for an appointment well in advance.
To get more information about legal aid options near you, visit the American Bar Association’s online directory and search for your state or city. You can also call law schools in your area to find out about clinics.
Many attorneys offer free initial consultations to satisfy their state bar’s requirements on pro bono hours. This consultation is an opportunity for you to ask initial questions and to discover if the lawyer is a good fit for you and your business.
Here are some questions to ask the lawyer during your initial consultation:
If the lawyer doesn’t answer these questions to your satisfaction, you’re free to walk away.
Sometimes, the initial consultation can provide you with sufficient information to resolve your legal problem. In most cases, however, the consultation will just give you a starting point, and you’ll need to make additional follow-up appointments with an attorney (which will then be charged at the attorney’s standard hourly rate).
It may surprise you to know that many lawyers these days are open to creative billing arrangements to get more small business clients. Instead of an hourly rate, business lawyers can use a contingency fee structure or alternative arrangements.
A contingency fee structure means you’re obligated to pay the lawyer only if you win your case. The lawyer’s fee then comes out of the money that’s awarded to you. While this isn’t “free” legal advice, this payment model does give you a risk-free way to obtain legal representation.
Contingency fees are used primarily in personal injury lawsuits, but they can be used in any type of case, including business litigation. If your business has been sued and you need to defend yourself in court, consider looking for a firm that will work for you on a contingency fee basis. Not only does a contingency fee structure work in your favor, but it also incentivizes the attorney to work harder on your case so that they can get paid.
To find a firm near you that works on a contingent basis, you can either call up your local bar association and ask them to recommend one, or you can simply Google “[your city] + business + contingency fee.”
While they are still not common within large law firms, smaller firms may be open to “fixed fee” or “task based” pricing where they will charge you a specific amount for routine projects. For example, instead of charging hourly for reviewing a contract, they may specify the price at the outset for this task.
There are several online legal services that offer legal assistance for free or for a low fixed rate. They can be an excellent resource for tracking down legal forms, getting advice on how to structure your business entity, and finding local lawyers.
Here are some of the top services to try:
Legal marketplaces like these are a great way to obtain low-cost or free legal help.
One final option for free and inexpensive legal support is online courses for entrepreneurs and business owners. Some online education providers host courses in business law to help entrepreneurs navigate the complexities of starting and running a business.
Here are some of the options:
These courses are a nice way to get an overview of the business legal landscape. However, if you have a specific question about your business, some of the earlier options for finding free legal advice will be better suited to you.
With the array of online legal websites that have popped up in the last few years, what once required the help of a lawyer can often be accomplished with just a few clicks.
Below are some of the things you generally do not need to hire a lawyer for. Of course, if your situation is outside the norm or if you have specific questions pertaining to your business’ situation, then we recommend hiring an attorney.
There are some areas of your business where it’s okay to skimp on dollars. For example, it’s easy to pull back your budget on a marketing approach that isn’t working or take on more responsibilities yourself in exchange for spending fewer dollars on hiring. However, legal is one area where it’s important to hire someone who’s qualified to give you sound professional judgment. Cutting corners and trying to do things yourself when you need a lawyer to represent you could lead to fines and even lawsuits.
This doesn’t mean you need to spend a fortune on legal fees. Just make sure your attorney has experience with your industry and the type of problem you’re trying to solve, and ensure that your fee agreement is clear and in writing. This will ensure a happy road ahead for you, your business, and your attorney.
Your budget doesn’t have to prevent you from getting the legal advice you need for your business. There are several great options for finding free legal help, from local legal aid clinics to online legal courses. With so many options, you’ll have all the legal support you need to take your business to the next level.
Priyanka Prakash is a senior contributing writer at Fundera.
Priyanka specializes in small business finance, credit, law, and insurance, helping businesses owners navigate complicated concepts and decisions. Since earning her law degree from the University of Washington, Priyanka has spent half a decade writing on small business financial and legal concerns. Prior to joining Fundera, Priyanka was managing editor at a small business resource site and in-house counsel at a Y Combinator tech startup.