Working with an Attorney on a Shoestring Budget

Working with an Attorney on a Shoestring Budget

The other day I was reading about a Rocket Lawyer survey that found that less than a third of small business owners worked with a lawyer in the past year. As the founder of a small business law firm, these numbers are disappointing. However, they aren’t surprising.

In my experience, most entrepreneurs don’t look for a lawyer until they’re in the middle of a crisis (e.g., a lawsuit), or they realize they’re missing something that they need (e.g., a contract term or a trademark). And a big reason for this is how much business lawyers cost.

There’s no way around it – lawyers is expensive. Traditionally, hiring an attorney meant forking over a retainer fee of a couple thousand dollars, paying for every minute of the attorney’s time and surprise bills, all without the guarantee of a successful result.  

However, times are changing. And today, even entrepreneurs on a shoestring budget can add a lawyer to their team. Here’s how.



There’s No Replacement for Experienced Legal Counsel

If I asked you your lawyer’s first name, would you be able to answer? If your answer is no the reality is Google is your lawyer (or maybe ChatGPT).

Both of these tools are great. They give you access to all the information known to man for the low-low price of free-ninety-nine. However, the problem with relying on these tools for legal advice is that if you aren’t asking the right question, you’ll never get the right answer. So the gaps in your knowledge will create vulnerabilities in your business, with potentially catastrophic consequences.  

Low-cost DIY platforms like LegalZoom and Rocket Lawyer are also insufficient replacements for professional legal advice. While they have tons of simple resources, they can’t fill the role of an experienced attorney who knows your business and can alert you when your circumstances require an approach that is outside the norm.

As the CEO of Rocket Lawyer said himself, when it comes to small business owners “[t]hey don’t know about the superpower that comes with great legal counsel.”


There are Affordable Ways to Access Professional Legal Know How

As I mentioned before, most small business owners think having a lawyer on your team means forking over a thousand-dollar retainer before you even get the chance to speak to an attorney. But while this may have been the case in the past, the legal industry is changing faster than most people realize.

A growing number of lawyers are offering services that are designed to be affordable for self-funded entrepreneurs.

Attorney Taylor Tieman in California has created the LegalMiga Library, through which she offers group Q&A workshops for just $22 per month. Attorney Mathew Kerbis in Illinois offers a $20 per month subscription that gives entrepreneurs access to schedule short Zoom calls with him to answer their legal questions. And of course, MZA Legal, offers free 10-minute discovery calls to all entrepreneurs to help them figure out the appropriate next steps when faced with a legal issue.

So there are lawyers out there who are willing and able to work with entrepreneurs at all stages. The key is finding the right one for you.


Finding the Right Lawyer

Adding a lawyer to your team when you’re short on funds starts with doing a little research. Your goal is to create a list of lawyers and law firms that you’d be interested in working with.

Be realistic in your search. Large, nationwide firms that work with Fortune 500 companies don’t usually offer services designed to affordably meet the needs of small businesses. Generally speaking, a small business is going to have the most luck working with a small law firm or solo attorney because they’re more affordable and there are fewer layers of administration between you and them.

Also, be on the lookout for keywords that indicate the firm understands the challenges small businesses face. Words like affordable, fixed fees, subscriptions, and transparent pricing can indicate that the firm is making an effort to meet the needs of cash strapped entrepreneurs.

Next, reach out to all of the firms on your list. Tell them what you do and ask what services they typically provide to businesses in your industry. Be honest about where you are when it comes to business growth – there’s nothing to be ashamed of. Letting the firm know that you’re on a tight budget will help both of you figure out if this could be a good fit.

Overall, any lawyer you work with should check all of the following boxes:

  • Knowledgeable: Have they worked with businesses like yours, and when talking with them did the demonstrate an awareness of the legal issues that exist for businesses in your industry?
  • Communicative: Were they easy to get in touch with?
  • Affordable: Can they provide services within your budget? You’ll primarily need advice to supplement your own knowledge. Can you afford the cost of a consultation?
  • Likeable: Did you like them, and would you enjoy working with them?


Establish a Relationship

Once you’ve found a lawyer or law firm you want to work with, it’s time to add them to your team. Traditionally, this is the point where you might sign an engagement agreement and pay a retainer fee. But if that doesn’t fit your budget, here’s what you can do instead.

Schedule a consultation with the attorney you want to work with. The attorney will probably charge a consultation fee (anywhere form $100 to $200 is about what you should expect). This may seem like a lot of money. But it’s well worth the investment. You’ll get a chance to review where your at, get advice on things you may be missing, and receive reassurance that you’re on the right path.

Not only will a consultation give you more confidence and clarity, but it will also help you establish a relationship. The attorney you’re working with will (presumably) take notes from your discussion. So the next time you reach out, they’ll be able to jump right in with advice that’s tailored to your needs. And moving forward, they’ll be able to alert and connect you with opportunities that they become aware of.

At the end of the day, adding a lawyer to your team is as simple as establishing a relationship. It’s being able to say, ‘when I need a document reviewed, advice on a situation I’m unfamiliar with, or a 2nd opinion before taking action, I’m going to call ________.’ So take the time to find someone you can work with on an as-needed basis, until you can afford to work with them on an on-going basis.

Because an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure!