Lawyers aim to lower barriers to legal advice for startups

Kate Andrews

Tricia Dunlap (L) and Claire Guthrie Gastañaga are partners at Richmond-based Dunlap Law LLC, which offers legal services to small businesses. Photo by Matthew R.O. Brown

It takes a lot to start a business — a marketable idea, available capital and good advice, among other resources. Tricia Dunlap puts legal guidance in the same bucket.

A former history teacher who became a lawyer in her 40s, Dunlap started her own Richmond-based law firm, Dunlap Law PLC, in 2015 to help “un-lawyered or under-lawyered” entrepreneurs get legal counsel affordably. Hourly billing costs that often range in the hundreds of dollars are a significant barrier for many small business owners, Dunlap notes. That’s why she’s aiming to make legal assistance from her firm more accessible for entrepreneurs through a new program based on setting flat, project-based fees or low monthly retainers. “I’m hoping to launch that in the first quarter of 2023,” she says.

Claire Guthrie Gastañaga, retired executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Virginia, joined Dunlap as a partner in September. She’s excited to help entrepreneurs. “A lot of times what happens is they’re so focused on what they’re doing or selling that they forget some of the corporate niceties they have to take care of and sustain,” Gastañaga explains. “They may or may not have a well-written foundational document, whether it’s articles of corporation or the paperwork they need to start up a limited liability company. We really want to help people start out right.”

At the University of Virginia School of Law’s Entrepreneurial Law Clinic, law students advise business owners pro bono  and also make referrals. Pamela Rosen, general counsel at Fermata Energy, is one of the clinic’s co-teachers.

Rosen says that it’s wise for entrepreneurs to ask their networks for lawyer recommendations — and to remember that some attorneys are, themselves, small business owners. “With that lens and mindset, the idea is that a lot of folks are open to networking and getting to know each other,” as well as working out a payment plan that works for both parties, she notes.

Hunter Guerin, who started Llamawood, a Richmond-based firewood delivery service with four employees, in 2021, says there’s a lot of free templates online for legal documents used in business — everything from nondisclosure agreements to vendor contracts. But, he adds, “I would still like an attorney to review those. When I started my business, I knew I wanted to be forward-thinking in terms of liability, dotting my i’s and crossing my t’s.”