By Joe Chase
Special to THELAW.TV
Business owners are busy people. Their days are filled with attracting new customers, keeping existing customers happy, and finding and retaining talented employees. Small businesses, particularly those just getting off the ground, usually also have tight budgets.
Often lost in this hectic mix is the need to pay attention to legal issues relevant to any business. It is a mistake for small business owners to give in to the temptation of putting off dealing with legal issues until their companies are larger or only when problems arise.
Entrepreneurs can often save themselves a great deal of money and aggravation by dealing with these issues from day one. Getting appropriate legal advice up front can, among other things, help protect a company against expensive lawsuits brought by employees, customers, suppliers, and other parties; help protect a company's intellectual property and other proprietary information; and, ultimately, make a potential future sale of the business relatively painless.
Quality legal advice does not need to be expensive. Many of the legal choices that a small business needs to make, and many of the documents that a small business should have in place, can be prepared quite efficiently. A good business lawyer can help a small business owner "triage" his or her needs to get the most bang for a limited legal budget.
In particular, a business lawyer at a good full-service law firm can have much to offer to a small business. A full-service firm will have experienced professionals in most of the areas of practice relevant to a small business. For example, business lawyers deal day in and day out with, among other things, drafting and negotiating contracts, structuring business entities, and issues relating to how business entities are controlled and managed – in other words, they are not litigators. But, should a lawsuit arise, a lot less time will be spent laying the groundwork for the litigation if the litigator handling the case has a close working relationship with the company's business lawyer — all the better for a small business' bottom line. Even if the business lawyer's firm does not have an attorney with the necessary skillset, by virtue of working with a variety of sophisticated clients, day in and day out, a good full-service law firm will have relationships with lawyers outside of the firm who have proven themselves capable in the areas of law that are important to businesses.
Although regional full-service law firms may be more expensive than individual lawyers in general practice, the small business owner who develops a relationship with the right business lawyer at a regional full-service firm can receive the legal assistance he or she needs at a reasonable price.
That said, there are plenty of business lawyers who work as solo practitioners or in smaller firms who have developed networks of lawyers outside of their firms that allow them to help their clients with problems involving various areas of legal practice. These lawyers often primarily represent small businesses and can be very in-tune with the needs of small businesses. However, small business owners should be wary of solo practitioners who claim to be "Jacks of all trades." Legal practice becomes increasingly specialized with each passing year, and a lawyer who truly believes he or she is capable of handling every matter faced by a small business likely does not "know what he or she does not know." As most experienced lawyers will readily tell you, the most dangerous thing for a lawyer is not being able to readily identify matters that are beyond his or her expertise. That is, the most effective business lawyers — whether or not they are members of full-service firms — are those who recognize when a particular issue goes beyond their own skill-set and requires the help of a lawyer in a particular area of law.
So, what are the legal issues every small business should address? Stay tuned: future articles in this series will cover the key issues entrepreneurs should consider sooner, rather than face the cost and aggravation of considering them later.
The author, Joe Chase, is an attorney at Gunster, Yoakley & Stewart, P.A., "Florida's Law Firm For Business."
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