This article was written by Emily Starbuck Crone and originally appeared on NerdWallet on January 2, 2018. It is shared here with permission.
When starting or growing a business, it’s tempting to cut costs by tackling projects yourself. When it comes to legal matters, a DIY approach works sometimes, but it can be risky.
Online legal services offer do-it-yourself options and lawyer access at far lower costs than traditional law firms.
“Technology is the key to providing greater access to legal services,” says Denise G. Bayer, business attorney at Harrington, Hoppe & Mitchell in Youngstown, Ohio. She says online self-service tools are helpful and often safe for basics such as general contracts, service agreements and nondisclosure agreements. You can also save money by completing some forms directly on government websites, such as reserving a business name or obtaining a tax ID, Bayer says.
It’s wise, however, to hire an attorney when creating your business entity, Bayer says, since lawyers understand legal and tax implications and can tailor their approach to your specific needs.
Whether you want to create basic documents yourself or hire a lawyer at reasonable rates, here’s a sampling of online legal services that can help.
Type of service: Flat monthly fee for personal help
How it works: Starting a business comes with many risks, and even seemingly straightforward documents often require interpretation by an attorney, says James B. Rosseau Sr., president of business solutions. LegalShield essentially crowdsources costs faced by business owners to make legal services more affordable, Rosseau says.
LegalShield partners with law firms in every state. Lawyers average 20 years in practice. Individuals and small businesses sign up for monthly, flat-fee plans: $39 for 10 employees or fewer, $89 for 50 or fewer, $149 for 100 or fewer. All include unlimited legal consultations, plus some calls, letters and documents. The two top tiers include trial defense services.
LegalShield offers support through the life of a business. This can mean developing HR policies, reviewing vendor contracts or drafting a letter to late-paying clients. “When there’s a letter from an attorney versus a business owner, there’s a very different reaction in terms of … expediency in making a payment,” Rosseau says.
Type of service: Pay per document for self service, or flat monthly fee for personal help
How it works: “We’re formed on the idea of democratizing law and making it accessible to everyone,” says Chas Rampenthal, general counsel and vice president of product development.
LegalZoom has a slew of do-it-yourself legal documents for small businesses. Complete a questionnaire for documents to form your business entity. The cost: $149 plus the filing fee. Use a similar process to trademark a business name, among other tasks.
The company also has a library of legal documents you can download and customize for $5.95 to $14.95 each; unlimited access is $7.99 monthly. Commonly used forms include nondisclosure agreements, partner dissolution agreements and cease-and-desist letters.
Small businesses can also pay a flat monthly fee starting at $23.99 for legal assistance with local lawyers when needed. Annually, this can cost less than an hour or two with a traditional lawyer, Rampenthal says.
Type of service: Pay per document for self service
How it works: Nolo is best known for its directory of lawyers and a plethora of free legal information. The service offers thousands of legal forms and online documents, as well as tools for business formation. Online formation of an LLC or corporation typically costs $99-$130. Nolo has a huge section of customizable business operation documents, such as contracts for working with independent contractors and breach of contract notices, most for $15 to $35.
Type of service: Pay per document for self service, or a flat monthly fee including some personal legal help
How it works: Because of pre-negotiated rates with lawyers, Rocket Lawyer says it can save you thousands of dollars on legal representation. The company has a library of business documents. Your first form is free, then it’s $7 monthly for access to unlimited revisions and copies of one form.
Small businesses can pay a flat fee for one-off legal processes, such as incorporating or starting an LLC. Some documents include a consultation with an expert; if you register a trademark, for example, a consultation with a trademark attorney is included.
A Rocket Lawyer membership ($39.95 or $49.95 a month) includes unlimited copies and revisions to all documents from the legal library. Members also get free advice from on-call attorneys, and it doesn’t cost extra to have a lawyer review documents you create on Rocket Lawyer.
Type of service: Online marketplace
How it works: UpCounsel connects individuals and businesses with hundreds of on-demand lawyers. “We’re saving our customers somewhere between 60% and 70% off a traditional legal bill,” says CEO Matt Faustman.
Whether it’s routine business formation or a complex employee-initiated lawsuit, Faustman says, post your needs on UpCounsel. Within an hour or two, you’ll receive proposals from several attorneys. Bids are flat fees for single projects or hourly rates for ongoing needs. UpCounsel helps manage the relationship with free document storage, esignatures and communication records.
UpCounsel’s lawyers are carefully vetted and average 14 years of experience, most at prestigious law firms and companies. Lacking the overhead of a big firm and able to work virtually, they charge comparatively reasonable rates.
Faustman says many small businesses use UpCounsel to set up business entities and tackle commercial contracts. UpCounsel lawyers also commonly help with intellectual property, such as securing patents or trademarks, plus tax and employment law issues.