NEW YORK -- Among the most important advisers for many small company owners is an attorney, someone to help avoid costly legal mistakes in transacting business and dealing with employees.
Lawyers say it's a good idea to have that kind of help from the start, usually from a general practice business lawyer, an all-purpose practitioner.
"A general practice business lawyer is usually capable of creating the entity, giving advice on what type of business to set up, review leases and basic business contracts," said Fred Steingold, an attorney in Ann Arbor, Mich., and author of "Legal Guide for Starting & Running a Small Business."
Depending on your line of work, you might want an attorney who has similar clients - for example, if you have export business, an attorney who understands the issues you deal with.
A general practice lawyer might not be able to help you in a specialized area such as intellectual property or setting up a retirement plan. In that case, you should probably turn to a lawyer who focuses on that area - much as you would go to a doctor who's a specialist for a particular problem, even if you have a primary care physician.
If you're worried about running up bills with more than one lawyer, "the good thing is that a lot of the things you have to pay for are one-time things," said Barbara Weltman, an attorney in Millwood, N.Y. "If you're paying a lawyer to incorporate and help you set up your minutes book and stock ledger, that's basically a one-time thing. It's the same thing with intellectual property."
Lawyers say there are ways you can keep your legal bills down. One avenue is to educate yourself as much as you can on a topic - you might find you don't need a lawyer's help after all. Or if you do, you'll take up less of his or her time because you'll already have an understanding of the basics of an issue.
There are plenty of self-help legal books and online aids to help you. For example, Weltman said, if you're hiring an employee and want to be sure you don't ask improper questions, the U.S. Department of Labor's Web site (www.dol.gov) has information that will help. You won't need to pay a lawyer to tell you what to do.
Martindale-Hubbell, a legal information service, has a Web site, www.lawyers.com, that gives some business law basics. So does www.nolo.com, operated by Nolo, the publisher of legal self-help guides. Two caveats: Some online sites, including Nolo, are also hoping to sell you their products. Also, the information they offer is general, and may not apply to your company or situation.
For many business basics, there are legal forms, simplified contracts and lease forms you can fill out yourself. There are even incorporation kits. But before you sign anything and commit yourself, you should ask a lawyer to look them over, to be sure you haven't made mistakes that will cause grief and cost you money in the future.
"Do a lot of the legwork yourself and then just have a lawyer review it," Weltman said.
When it comes to employee issues, you might also get the help you need from a human resources management firm. So if you're looking for an HR firm, be sure you sign up with one whose services include legal advice.
But - and this is especially important - if you already find yourself involved in litigation with an employee, an attorney's office should probably be your first stop.
The process of finding an attorney is similar to finding an accountant, banker or even a doctor. You're looking for expertise, but you also want someone that you can work well and feel comfortable with.
One choice you'll need to make is whether you want to work with a solo practitioner or a firm. And if it's a firm, what size.
Steingold noted that small businesses "often want personal attention. In a big office, they can feel lost in the shuffle." But he also said a bigger law firm with different specialists might be the answer for a company that needs more than the basics.
Many business owners find lawyers through referrals, from other company owners, accountants or bankers. Chambers of commerce and trade organizations can also be good sources.
Martindale-Hubbell also has an online lawyer finder at www.martindale.com that lists lawyers and their specialties.