What Does a Small Business Lawyer Cost and Do I Need One?

And how to go about finding one in Washington state

There’s a saying that if something doesn’t have a price tag, you probably can’t afford it. While there’s truth to it in some circumstances, that’s not necessarily the case with attorneys. The reason many don’t advertise a single price is that cost is largely based on needs, and those vary on a case-by-case basis. But just as there are large corporations and small startups, the same is true of law firms.

“If you're working with a small business, you have to be reasonable and understand the business and the owners to work out a plan or strategy that works with their budget, their timeline, and their type of the business,” says Niloufar Park, a business attorney at Opsera Law in Seattle.

How Much Does It Cost, and How Do They Charge?

Business attorneys commonly charge by the hour, meaning however much work a task requires, that’s how much it will cost. But others, Park included, have adopted a more flexible fee structure.

“Certain things I do on a flat fee—things like drafting contracts for a startup or a health check-up assessment, which is something I do with clients that have been in operation for a few years,” she says. “All of those can be done on a set fee, and I'll discuss it with the client upfront so they can budget for it.”

More reactionary needs, she adds, such as a disgruntled employee filing a lawsuit or breaking a restrictive covenant, are typically done on an hourly basis. But, even then, she tries to provide her client with an estimate up front.

The beauty of my law practice is that we're a small firm,” she continues. “My partner and I both came from big law firms and we've seen how it works. So we try to cater to the needs of our small business clients because we understand that they don't have the big budget of a corporation.”

Finding the Right Attorney and Firm

“Fees are always a major concern. You have a budget, and there are limitations,” Park says. “But the second thing is personality—the human touch.”

Some have likened finding the right attorney to dating, in that it can sometimes take a while to find the right fit. Park suggests a better analogy: “You can go buy cheap shoes, but if it doesn't fit, then you just wasted your time and money.”

Take, for example, an attorney tasked with drafting a business agreement. Although reputable attorneys know the law and how to apply it, it’s often not that cut-and-dry.

“You need to probe, and ask the right questions,” Park says. “You can put an agreement in front of me and I can edit it all I want, but I have to take the time to understand the relationship of the party, the owner, the business; what are the most important things in this relationship; what are the most important terms of this contract that need to be negotiated; is there an alternate way we can provide the draft or the information or present it to the other party that's not offensive if we want to change it drastically. There's a lot of human touch that goes into it.”

What Legal Help Do Small Businesses Need?

Not only is the law constantly changing, with myriad legislators and agencies making amendments both federally and locally, there are legal implications every time an entrepreneur hands over a signature or asks someone else to.

“I think small businesses still do a lot of their relationship-building and their arrangements based on handshakes,” Park adds. “So, at the outset, you need to have a solid agreement with your vendors, with your clients, and reviewing your commercial leases. Those big ones immediately pop to mind.”

Park also recommends revisiting those documents every year or two. “Relationships change. Behaviors of your vendors and clients change. Maybe it takes them six months to pay you. Maybe they are not fulfilling your orders in time and they're always behind delivering, or they provide you damaged products or services.”

An attorney can help you manage those relationships.

“People forget that those contracts are rather powerful,” Park says, “and when you have a savvy attorney who’s experienced, they can really provide advice on how to have the other party behave by enforcing or not enforcing the contract.”

For more information on business law, see our overviews of business organization, closely held business, and contract law.

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