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To Represent or Not to Represent: When is an Attorney Optional & When Is It Necessary

Running a business of any size comes with some serious legal ramifications. You may never experience some of them, while others can pop up out of nowhere—leaving you scrambling for a quick answer.

It can be difficult to determine when you can go it alone and when you need the services of a qualified business attorney. You don’t want to pay for legal representation that you don’t really need (we know), but you also don’t want to find yourself in over your head and sinking fast.

Below are 12 common scenarios, and some answers on which require a lawyer.

When in doubt, contact an attorney who offers free initial consultations. He or she can take a look at your issue, and help you decide whether it’s something you can tackle on your own or whether you need expert legal help. An honest, ethical attorney can handle even the stickiest of legal problems, allowing you to keep your focus on what really matters—your business.

Administrative Law: Claims Against Government Entities

It’s not easy to sue the government—at any level. Multiple protections are in place for their benefit, not necessarily yours. There are strict guidelines, and if they’re not followed to the letter your entire case can be dismissed.

A governmental lawsuit typically begins with a “Notice of Claim,” which must generally be filed within a relatively short amount of time following the underlying incident. This notice serves to inform the government that you’ve suffered damages at their hand, and that you intend to attempt to recoup your losses. Your claim will then either be accepted or denied.

If your claim is accepted, all is well. However, most claims are initially denied. If your claim is denied, the next step could be a lawsuit, wherein you’ll still have to prove your damages.

If your business has suffered losses at the hands of a government entity, an experienced attorney can help you deal with anything from a suit against a city employee to a large-scale case against the federal government. Navigating the complex governmental labyrinth isn’t easy; an attorney can help cut through the red tape.

Licensing Law: Accusations and Investigations

Nothing strikes fear into the heart of a business owner quite like an inquiry from the licensing board.

While it’s important not to panic over the thought—most inquiries never turn into a full-fledged accusation of wrongdoing—you must take the risk of an accusation seriously. It’s crucial to get the advice of an attorney as soon as you know (or even suspect) that the licensing board is giving you more than a casual glance.

Should the board announce its intent to investigate, an attorney is necessary. An unfavorable investigation can mean fines, probation, suspension, license revocation, or—in the most extreme cases—referral to the local police or prosecutor for criminal charges.

The process of the investigation itself is confusing and rife with potential pitfalls. An attorney can be instrumental in advising you of your rights, helping you gather the necessary records and dealing with the board, department, or agency on your behalf. Never assume that you can “beat” the board on your own, even if its accusations are groundless. Losing could mean the end of your professional life.

Your attorney can handle everything from a simple hearing to a full-scale appeal, and may even be able to help you reinstate a lost license.

A board investigation carries long-lasting consequences. Don’t go it alone.

Licensing Law: Disclosure of Criminal History

Everyone makes mistakes, so your past transgressions shouldn’t necessarily have a huge impact on your future employment prospects. Unfortunately, many positions require an extensive criminal background check, and a single hit from years (or even decades) before can bar you from certain areas of the professional world.

Whether you’re trying to get a license, or you work in a sensitive field such as healthcare, insurance, or accounting, it’s important to retain the services of an attorney when you begin the application process. While it might not be possible to cover up your convictions, it’s important to know your rights and do your best to put a positive spin on your past problems.

Employment Law: Workplace Discrimination

Discrimination is a hot-button issue, and one that the state and federal labor boards do not take lightly. Whether you’re an employee who’s been discriminated against, or an employer facing baseless accusations from some of your workforce, it’s important to handle the situation with tact and awareness.

All discrimination complaints should be taken seriously and properly documented as soon as possible. It’s against the law to retaliate against an accuser, and the complaint must be kept confidential. Depending on the nature of the complaint, it may be advisable to hire an attorney to perform an internal investigation. This will help you make certain you’re not out of compliance with current Equal Employment Opportunity Commission laws.

Contract Law: Partnership Disputes

No matter how well you get along with your business co-owners, you’re bound to have a difference of opinion every now and then. Most disputes can be settled amicably out of court, but sometimes a peaceful resolution is impossible.

Communicate openly with your partners. Compromise is important, but be prepared to stand your ground on certain sensitive issues. Know your rights, obligations, and options.

If you simply can’t reach an amicable resolution, a meeting with an attorney can help you decide where to go next. A voluntary dissolution of partnership may be possible if all parties agree. Your attorney will help you decide how to divide assets and debts, and make a plan for ongoing business operations.

If all parties don’t agree to the terms, an involuntary dissolution could be your only option. This requires you to take your partners to court, where a judge will make a final determination as to the division of debts and assets.

An ironclad partnership agreement is often the best way to prevent a disastrous end. Contract lawyers can take a look at your agreement and help you determine whether it’s in the best interest of your business, or if changes should be made. Whether you’re drafting an initial agreement or making changes to an existing one, an attorney can help mediate all parties to ensure everyone gets a fair share.

Business Law: Forming, Buying, or Selling a Business

Buying or selling a business is a lot different than buying or selling a car or a home. Will you be a franchisee or will you own it outright? How do you know if the asking price is fair, or what price you should ask for your own business? Is it financially solvent? What do you need to disclose in the sale? What long-term obligations do you have?

Or if you’re starting a business from the ground-up, you’ll need to dive into a host of issues—everything from figuring out how to incorporate, to even picking and registering a company name.

The details can confuse even the most business-savvy individual, which is why you should always consult an attorney whether you plan to form a new business, buy one, or sell your existing company. Your attorney will advise you on the possible tax ramifications of the sale, draw up and/or inspect necessary contracts, and make sure you know your rights and responsibilities.

Lawsuits, Subpoenas, and Legal Matters

If you’re ordered to appear before the court or another attorney for any reason, do not do so alone. You should never answer a summons, civil suit, or subpoena without legal advice and/or representation. Having a skilled attorney at the ready can save you plenty in potential legal fees, fines, and settlement payouts.

When DON’T You Need An Attorney?

As valuable as attorneys can be, there are times when you can probably go it alone. Although most are willing and able to help with any and all aspects of your business, the following issues can be handled in-house:

  • Trademark research and reservation
  • Internet domain names
  • EIN applications
  • Business licenses and permits
  • Leased office space

Even DIY tasks can have their sticking points. Should problems arise with anything you attempt to do on your own, an attorney is always available to steer you in the right direction, answer your questions and ensure that you’re in compliance with all business rules and regulations.

Err on the Side of Caution

Whether you’ve got a pressing legal matter breathing down your neck, or you simply need some good advice, an established relationship with an attorney can save plenty of time and stress should these (or any other) issues arise. Don’t wait until a worst-case scenario rears its ugly head. When you’ve got a qualified attorney in your corner, you’ve got the power to handle anything your professional life throws your way.