There are plenty of reasons for small-business owners to seek an attorney's expertise. But if all you need is a simple document, you might be able to save time and money by using your PC.
Business Lawyer 2000 from Parsons Technology (http://www.parsonstech.com) isn't exactly a lawyer in a box, but it does let you create, edit and print common legal documents. Like a good lawyer, the program begins by asking you some questions about your business so that it can recommend what documents you might need. It also lets you select from a long list of pre-formatted documents ranging from "agreement to cancel a lease" to "work for hire agreement."
Once you select a document, the program asks you a detailed series of questions that help it select the text in your document. My wife and I own a rental house and it's about time to renew the lease, so I used the program to create a new lease for our tenant. The software asked some very useful questions about whether pets are allowed, what will happen if the property is sold, whether there is a limit on how many people can live on the property and so on. After I answered all the questions, the program generated a lease, which could be printed out, edited within the program or saved as a RTF (rich text format) file that can be imported into a word processing program. I saved mine as an RTF file, imported it into Word and made a couple of changes manually. If you decide to edit the document within the program you are warned that changes "may have significant legal effects."
I created several other documents and was equally impressed by the depth of questioning. This is especially useful if you're on unfamiliar territory because the program is likely to ask you questions about issues you may not have thought about.
The program has some nice time-saving features. It remembers names, addresses and other data you enter, so if you have to enter it again you just start typing the first letter or two and it enters the rest. If you need to enter a date you can click on a calendar instead of having to type it in. You can enter or derive numbers with an on-screen calculator. It also has a "document info" icon that tells you about the purpose of the document you're creating.
If you're setting up a new business, the program's "Business Selector" feature will ask you a series of questions about the nature of your business. It will then recommend the type of business structure (sole proprietor, general partnership, "C" corporation, "S" corporation or limited liability company) you should use. Of course, for such an important decision you'll probably want to do some reading and consult an expert.
The program also has what it calls a "legal library" but it's a far cry from what you'd find in a good law office. The program does give you access to some basic advice from famed Harvard law professor Arthur Miller as well as information about legal documents and a glossary. However, most of the information is oriented to family and consumer law, not business law. The package also comes with another program called the Plain Language Legal Dictionary that does a good job explaining legal terms you'll encounter in business and personal law.
At $29.95, the program is a good investment, even if you use it only once. Obviously it can't take the place of a real attorney when it comes to complicated business decisions, litigation, a complex regulatory situation--or if you just need someone to talk to about the legal affairs of your business.
You can also use the Internet to download legal documents from Legaldocs (http://www.legaldocs.com) or Parsons Technology's site at http://www.itslegal.com. You'll also find small-business legal advice at the Nolo Press site (http://www.nolo.com).
Finally, if you want to see how the big guys create documents, you can visit CourtTV's Legal Documents page (http://www.courttv.com/legaldocs/) to read documents from famous cases that involve large companies. It won't help you run your small business, but it might make you feel better about being outside the world of big business.
Lawrence J. Magid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. His Web site is at http://www.larrysworld.com. On AOL, use keyword "LarryMagid."