Startup Shortcuts: How to Find Low-Cost Legal Services
This is the second in a series of posts that I'm calling Startup Shortcuts, where I will share some free/low-cost solutions that I've discovered for common startup challenges. Read the first post here.
After all, there are many legal issues to deal with up front, including determining the relationship between the co-founders (Do I need a founders' agreement?), deciding if/how/when to formalize your business entity (Should I form an LLC or C corp or something else?), and dealing with intellectual property issues (I want to protect my stuff, even if I haven't developed anything yet!)
But, of course, as a startup, you (probably) have no money. And even if you've raised a little seed money, you (probably) don't want to spend it on legal fees.
Most lawyers will tell you that you'll save time, money, and heartache down the line by doing things right in the first place, so you're better off hiring a lawyer than not. That is probably true. But the reality is that most startups just can't afford it.
Now, I have to put up the obligatory disclaimer that I am not a lawyer and I am not giving legal advice. My goal here is simply to share what we did, and what I know other startups have done, to get free/low-cost legal help:
1. Apply to legal clinics at local law schools
We lucked out big time, because we were able to work with the legal clinics at local universities. At these clinics, you'll work with law students, who work under the supervision of professors and real lawyers. Students get course credit and practical experience, while startups get much-needed free legal help.
The only downside is that the process takes a bit longer than if you were to work directly with a lawyer (i.e., because the students have to run everything by their professors and mentors first), but in my opinion, it's completely worth it. We owe a big THANK YOU to the students and professors who have helped us. Check out local law schools in your area to see if they offer a similar service.
2. Look into pro-bono services at a local law firm
Another option is to see if a local law firm will take on your case for free. One of the incubators that we participated in was able to connect us with a local law firm to help us out, which was great. The process to apply for pro-bono services directly varies across firms, but a good way to learn about your options is to ask other local entrepreneurs for recommendations.
3. Find a friend (or a friend of a friend) to help you out
We also know of other startups who were able to find a free and/or inexpensive startup lawyer by working their connections. That's a great option, but the only caveat I would say, is to make sure you're working with a lawyer that specializes in startup issues, and not say, your Uncle Bob, who is a real estate lawyer and has never put together a founders' agreement before.
No matter how you decide to proceed, I want to stress how important it is to develop a basic understanding of the legal issues that you face as a startup. You'll be better prepared to ask the right questions and give more informed answers. And if you plan to pay, learning some basic stuff on your own can mean the difference between paying for 10 billable hours vs. 20. In any event, doing some homework will likely produce a much better end product for you. Docracy is a great site that offers a collection of free sample legal forms for startups and I also like the Nolo Guides which you can borrow for free from most libraries.
Until next time,
Have questions or feedback? Comment below or let me know on Twitter @professorword!