How to Get Answers to Legal Questions When You Are a Small Business Looking for Free or Cheap Legal Help
Most every lawyer I know, including myself, tries to schedule out their day. Inevitably, though, and especially if you’re running your own smaller practice, you WILL receive questions, whether by phone or email, from people that aren’t lawyer who have somehow concluded that their question is a very simple one that shouldn’t take longer than a few seconds to answer.
Yeah, right. In this post, I’ll share with you how to get answers to your quick and simple legal questions when you are a small business (or a person) looking for free or cheap legal help.
When I learned that a Mechanic is Worth the Money
With one of my last cars, I learned how to do some of the maintenance work myself. I chose to do it because it saved me money, and I enjoy DIY-projects. I learned how to change the oil. I learned how to change the brakes. I learned how to change the spark plugs.
One day, I decided to try tackling the big daddy of car jobs – changing the timing belt. I had a repair manual for the car that did the job in about 16 steps. I searched all over for how-tos and guides to do the job. I searched all the forums I was a member of for help and guidance.
I came to the conclusion that it was a do-able job. Weekend wrench monkeys were able to change their timing belts before, and surely others would do so after me, so I know I could do it.
I bought the parts, had the tools lined up, and planned out a weekend to take on the job. The part kit I bought even came with an instruction sheet to do the job!
I got to work, following all the guides I reviewed. Pulled apart this cable. Unscrewed this thing here. Detached these cables from there.
Things were coming along, and then I reached a flywheel that I had to detach. There were three screws that I had to loosen. I was able to remove two, and was having a lot of difficulty with the third. It was located in a small space in between two plates, so not directly visible.
After some finegaling, I was pretty sure I had my driver lined up with the screw head, started turning when I felt a dreading feeling – I was stripping the screw. I tried moving around to different positions, tried to get leverage with different tools, but none of it was working.
I spent the whole day trying to get through this project, and now all because of one screw, I had to cancel the whole thing. As it was getting close to sunset, I had to scramble to put my half open car back together before dark.
I did as good a job as I thought I could putting my engine back together. I was sure most of the right bolts and screws went back into all of the right places. Although some things gave me issues to put back together (like the coolant hose), I felt like everything was back in place, and I shut the hood. I made the decision that I would take the car early in the morning to my mechanic to complete the job.
I drove up to my mechanic (who at the time, the shop was about an hour and a half away from where I was living). When I got to the shop, and the car was on the lift, he started to take it apart. I will never forget this. He was smoking a cigarette when he stopped and made the remark that everything was coming apart so easily.
After he loosened a few more bolts, the front end of my car fell off, when he asked if I had done anything to the car. I told him that I tried to replace the timing belt myself when I stripped a bolt, so I tried to put everything back together and got the shop first thing in the morning. His next remark made me realize to pay people for their specialization, education, and experience: “You’re lucky you made it here alive. I’m surprised the car didn’t fall apart while you were driving.” My mechanic, thankfully, was able to replace the timing belt and correct all of my mistakes in less than two hours.
What to do when you have a “simple, quick question”
You may be wondering why I shared with you the long story about trying to change my timing belt. It’s because what we often think is a simple, quick, and do-able thing may not be what it appears. As I mentioned in the open, time and again, people contact me with what they (somehow) concluded is a quick, simple inquiry, when in reality it often is anything but that.
I often get calls from potential bankruptcy prospects who state, from the beginning of the conversation, “my case is a simple case. How much is it going to cost?” Even before I know their living situation, their income, their anything, they’ve concluded it’s a quick, simple case.
If they actually took some time to dive in and learn about the topic, they may realize that it’s anything but quick and simple. Even if it is quick and simple, they don’t want to do the mundane work of researching the topic – which is what lawyers do.
What is legal research?
A lawyer knows how to do legal research. We learned, in law school, where to find the laws, how to find and navigate cases to understand the state of the law. You should know that most laws, cases, and rules from public entities are available for free for the public. If you’re willing to spend a little time to find these sources, you can often answer most of the questions you have. Below you’ll find a list of resources that you can check out if you have a “quick and simple” legal question. (FYI: the links below may be an affiliate link, in which case I may receive a small commission and/or discount from the company at no extra cost to you.)
If you weren’t aware, Google has a pretty good tool that gives you access to court decisions, as well as articles – and it’s FREE. It’s called Google Scholar. When you get to the home page, there’s a simple text search bar with two radio buttons that let you search either cases or articles. You simply type in some keywords and let Google do its thing.
What I would recommend doing with Google Scholar is to search articles first to get an idea of what it is you’re looking for. Become familiar with any terms of art that your question may involve. After you’ve read an article or two, and developed some familiarity with the framework of your question, then it makes sense to turn to finding some cases. Usually, legal scholarship articles will include cites to cases, and that will help shortcut any cases you may be searching for.
Your State’s Corporations Website
I’ve got a little secret to share with you. I actually refer to the NYS Department of State – Division of Business Corporations website pretty regularly. Many of the questions I receive from people about business issues are answered on this website. Many states will have a comparable website. So, the next time you have a quick question about something simple about your business, if you don’t want to receive a bill for that quick call, check out your state’s corporation website and search for your answer first.
I’ve found state corporation sites to be helpful especially with the following: filing fees, forms, citations of law. If your question is a really specific one that falls into a category like these, definitely check out your state’s corporation site. Also, many of these sites will include opinion letters from the agency’s attorney, providing even greater guidance on your question.
Your Local Courthouse and Court Websites
Like the state corporation sites, your court’s website will be loaded with good information. They often contain links to forms that you can use to prepare whatever it may be that you need. Everything from court filings to petitions for trademark, you can find on court sites.
What court websites lack will be analyses or guidance, because they can’t issue that. Notwithstanding, some court sites do have resource lists, including local bar association contact info, that may be able to better point you in the right direction.
FastCase Legal Research
One reason that lawyers charge quite a bit for the work we do is because it costs a lot for the resources we need to do our jobs. As a lawyer, we need access to legal research services. Google Scholar is a good start, and there are services that make it easier and simpler to search for related cases. This is critical for lawyers because we need to know and understand the current state of the law, and to be able to gauge that quickly and easily.
There are two big legal research platforms that do a lot of this work for you. Unfortunately, at least in my opinion, these two services are prohibitively expensive for many solo and small firms. These services can easily run into hundreds of dollars per month. This is one reason why legal fees tend to be high – the cost of legal research platforms.
In the last few years, companies have leverage technology to make access to legal research cheaper and more efficient. One platform is called FastCase. FastCase provides access to caselaw is many, if not all, jurisdictions. More importantly, they offer unlimited service at a low-cost, whether you pay monthly or annually. Additionally, FastCase provides recommendations to secondary sources that you can get access to (at a cost) to help provide greater context of the issue you are researching.
For example, let’s say you have a question about whether an image you want to use in your business might constitute trademark infringement. You would identify some keywords to start your research. Input the search terms into FastCase, and it you would get a case results list. You could dive into a couple of the cases to get a sense of what the answer may be. You could also try accessing one of the secondary sources recommended to gain a better understanding of the context of your question.
Another legal research platform that I really enjoy is CaseText. CaseText allows you to upload a document, the CaseText platform will automatically search the document, and then produce a results list based on, what it believes, are the primary issues in the document.
Unlike FastCase, which offers recommendations to secondary sources, CaseText results will point to articles (and possibly court filings) written by attorneys. This is really helpful because it gives insight into how the cases apply in real-life. If you’re concerned about possible trademark infringement, it’s much more helpful to understand what fact patterns may constitute infringement, rather than scholarship on the theory of trademark infringement.
Blumberg Legal Forms
Often times, the “quick and simple” question that a business owner has for me boils down to a form. Blumberg Legal Forms is a great place to search for what you might be looking for. Many lawyers rely on Blumberg forms for their own matters. (For instance, many leases, as well as real estate contracts, are Blumberg forms.)
The Blumberg forms run across all types of legal matters. Even better, you can pay for the form online, prepare it on your computer, and print out the final version for signing.
As you can see, there are ways that you can avoid a legal bill to get your “quick and simple” legal questions answered. I have some suggestions, though, to make your search more productive.
First, check out attorney blogs. I know I try to post relevant info in the areas of law that I practice and try to make the material easy to consume. Legal blogs are a great resource. Just know that they are similar to editorials – they are based on the opinion and analysis of the author.
Another suggestion is, if you’re using one of the resources above, be sure to read through a few forms, blogs, articles, and/or cases. Laws, rules and procedures are always changing. Even as a lawyer, nothing can be guaranteed, but doing the research helps you to properly gauge and mitigate risk.
Finally, if you use one of the search platforms to do research on your questions, I highly encourage the use of boolean searches. I’ve found that the legal research sites, as well as Google Scholar, still don’t do contextual searches very well. It might work to use a phrase to start your research, but as you hone into an answer you’re looking for, you should use boolean searches to create a really tight search.
“Quick and simple” legal questions are often more than just that. Plus, as a practitioner, it creates a huge inconvenience because it’s not just one person doing it, but several people each day. While I’d love to help everyone that contacts me with a “quick and simple” question, I can’t run a successful and profitable practice doing that, and I can’t focus on my clients’ work the way I need to.
Before reaching out to an attorney with a quick and simple question, try doing a little bit of research first. Check out the sites of your local court and corporations division. Try Google Scholar. Finally, if you find some of these questions come up regularly, it might make sense to invest in an affordable legal research platform, like FastCase and CaseText, so you can do some in-depth research before contacting an attorney.