8 Small-Business Legal Matters That Don’t Require an Attorney
Attorneys are expensive, especially for startups and early stage businesses. Some situations, such as defending a lawsuit or negotiating complex contracts, call for an attorney — and the costs of hiring one pale in comparison to the potential losses you may otherwise incur.
Other matters, however, are straightforward enough that you can probably handle them on your own. (That said, if things start to get hairy, seeking experienced legal counsel is your best bet.) Here are eight small-business tasks that generally don’t require an attorney.
1. Search for prior trademarks — First, check that your business name, or any close variation of it, is not already trademarked. You can do this on the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office’s website. The Wall Street Journal provides an in-depth explanation of how to register your own trademark if you're in the clear.
2. Research and reserve a business name — Go to your state’s Secretary of State webpage. There, you will likely find a tool that allows you to search business names in your state. When you register or incorporate your company (see #4), your business name will likely be reserved. Because state laws differ, verify with your state filing authority.
3. Register a domain name. If your business depends heavily on your website, check to see whether your desired domain name is available before choosing a business name. If the name is available, the registrar you choose will guide you through the process of registering (purchasing) it.
4. Incorporate your business. Each state has different requirements for incorporation, but for entities like a limited liability company, the process can often be completed online. More complex corporate entities may require legal assistance. Visit USA.gov to find a link to your state’s office.
5. Apply for an Employer Identification Number. Much like a Social Security number of individuals, an EIN is how the IRS identifies your business. You may apply for an EIN online at the IRS website. (You don’t necessarily need an EIN; read this article to find out whether you do.)
6. Interview and hire employees. Know the questions you are not allowed to ask before conducting interviews. Once you hire an employee, create an employment contract. Many business forms are easy to find online free of charge. Finally, have new hires complete the required IRS forms.
7. Hire independent contractors. Just as you would with an employee, interview perspective contractors, create a contract, and ask them to complete a W-9 form [PDF]. Make sure they meet the IRS guidelines for contractors.
8. Handle an IRS correspondence audit. There are three types of IRS audits: correspondence, office, and field. A correspondence audit is a letter from the IRS asking for more information or advising you that an additional payment is due; you can usually deal with these on your own, simply by providing the details requested. Office and field audits, however, involve face-to-face contact with an IRS auditor and often require the help of an attorney.
If you don’t feel comfortable completing any of the above tasks alone, get help from an attorney or accountant. In all legal matters, it’s better to err on the side of caution.