Picking a Legal Partner for Your Startup

Legal Partners for Startups - South Africa

When your small business is still in the early stages and finding its feet, perhaps taking on a few more staff or maybe looking at expanding to bigger premises, you’d be forgiven if the last thing on your mind is making sure you find a good lawyer to team up with! However, if you’re embarking on a venture in an industry you’re unfamiliar with, or this is your first time running your own company, sound legal advice can be the difference between the success and failure of your business.


As a general rule of thumb, if you’re looking at hiring an accountant, you’re probably at the right stage to find yourself a law firm to keep on retainer and deal with issues as they come up. Right from the beginning, legal counsel can be invaluable. Whether it’s deciding on the right business structure such as a partnership, sole proprietorship, or non-profit, writing and reviewing contracts, managing equipment or property leases, protecting your intellectual property, taking on new staff or dealing with employee disputes – getting it right from the beginning sets your business off to a better start.

Only looking for a legal representative once a customer threatens to sue you is, needless to say, too little too late. So how do you go about finding the right legal partner for your startup company that will provide the correct balance of experience and quality of service at a rate that doesn’t hamper your new business’ growth? Let’s find out!

Start by compiling a shortlist

Start by checking out all the local legal services in your area, and make a note of the ones that immediately jump out as being suited to small businesses and startups. Read some of the testimonials on their websites and see if there are any from companies in a similar industry to your own – if so, bump them higher up the list.

Once you have your list of suitable firms, it’s time for the next big consideration – price. Send an email or phone them up and find out what their monthly fee structure is like, what different plans are available, and what services they cover.  It’s also at this point that you’ll need to decide to go with a large or small firm – and both have pros and cons. Small firms often cost a lot less, but due to their size, they’re going to lack specialists in certain areas of law. If they have a good spectrum of lawyers with experience in your specific industry however, then this might not be an issue for you. If your industry is unique or challenging – let’s say you’re in the drone business for example, where legal issues might be difficult to predict – it’s probably going to be worth the extra money to go with a larger firm who have a more diverse team of specialists.

Pricing options

Most firms have multiple pricing options, and which makes the most sense for your startup will depend on what services you will need and how frequently. If you honestly only anticipate having to deal with them very occasionally, an hourly or per diem rate may be more favourable than a monthly retainer. If you’re the kind of person who likes to run every contract past a set of legal eyes and always have someone a phone call away, then a monthly retainer makes more sense. For more specific matters like an individual lawsuit, the firm might charge a contingent fee – which means that they receive full payment only if they succeed, and they only receive expenses if they don’t.

Get a feel for how they do business

Ask them outright if they have experience dealing with customers in your specific industry, and how long for. If they offer a free initial sit down consultation, then this is already a good sign. Try and come up with a list of every legal scenario you might ever find yourself facing – from dealing with employee discipline, writing up contracts and acquiring licenses, dealing with property leases and real estate, to copyright and trademark registrations – and have this ready to talk over with them. It will give them a good general idea of the level of service that you need, and also help you ascertain how familiar and comfortable they are with each aspect.

Don’t feel shy to ask in-depth questions, or press for more comprehensive answers at any point you feel out of your depth. How they deal with your questions is going to give you a better feel for what it would be like doing business with them. Ideally, you want to find a firm that you’re going to have a relationship with for many years to come, so your impressions about how forthright and open they are with you count for a lot.

More than just being there for those unanticipated legal hassles, the right legal team behind you gives you the confidence and peace of mind to focus on growing your business – don’t underestimate its value!

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