Dangerous Do it Yourself Legal Advice

One of my rituals every morning is zooming around the blog-o-sphere and the news sites to see what is new in the world.  I always find a few interesting articles and I tweet them throughout the day.  You can find me on Twitter @David_B_Willis if you want to follow me.

This morning, I came across a blog post titled When to hire a Lawyer for Business Matters (and when to Do it Yourself).  Now, I have never commented on the ads run by companies that have tried to commoditize legal advice.  The are private companies out to make a profit and it is their right to advertise their products.

But I had to talk about this blog post for one very important reason: it is on the SBA website.   The SBA is suppose to be a source of sound advice.

First, let’s clear the air.  I am a lawyer who represents small and closely held companies.  If my clients decide to handle their legal issues on their own then it hurts my practice.  So clearly, I have a financial interest in dispelling the assertions in this post.  But there is a flip side to this as well.

The fact is that lawyers often end up making more money off clients who attempt to do things on their own.  Inevitably they get sucked in by this type of argument and are stunned to find out they did not quite get what they were expecting.  It costs a lot more to pay me to fix your problems on an hourly basis than it does a flat fee to protect your business up front.  Think about this, is it easier (meaning cheaper) to do things right the first time or to go back, cleanup a mess, and redo everything correctly?

Now, allow me to comment on the five topics Caron Beesley suggests do not require the assistance of a lawyer…

1. Naming your business and claiming a trademark – The process of naming a business isn’t as simple as just picking a name and running with it. If you choose any name other than your own, you’ll need to file a “Doing Business As” Name.

  • Not accurate. You don’t always have to file an Assumed Name Certificate  (Texas’s version of the dba) when you operate under a title that includes more than just your name.  Also, the fact that you include your name in your company name does not exempt you from having to file an Assumed Name Certificate.
  • As for claiming a trademark, step one according to the SBA’s page linked in the article is to “Determine whether your product is eligible for a trademark.”  But that’s it.  No information on how you can make that determination.  Guess what, USPTO filing fees are non-refundable.  The government thanks you for your contribution.
  • I would also note that even the USPTO agrees, “a private trademark attorney (not associated with the USPTO) may help you avoid many potential pitfalls.”

“2. Legal structure for your business – Entering into a partnership agreement or forming an LLC can be done without legal assistance. You can also use the services of an online broker such as LegalZoom, MyCorporation, or The Company Corporation.”

  • Every partnership should have a Partnership agreement and every LLC should have a Company Agreement.  These are separate and apart from anything filed to actually create the entity.
  • Point of fact: you don’t actually need to file anything to create a partnership.
  • Each type of business entity is governed by a set of statutory defaults that are in effect unless they are modified via a Partnership Agreement, Company Agreement, or Shareholder Agreement.  Do you know what those rules are?  Do you know whether those rules are how you want to run your company? Do you know which rules you can modify by agreement and which rules you cannot?
  • Dirty little secret: most of the documents provided by these companies simply guide you through making elections under the default rules.  Want any actual effort to draft documents specific to your company? You’re on your own. Or hire a lawyer.
  • Really?  It’s ok to do it yourself on the LLC and Partnership, but not the corporation?  Is there any difference in the degree of difficulty between drafting bylaws, resolutions, and a Shareholder agreement versus a Partnership or Company Agreement?

3. Filing and registering the paperwork to start a business – Most of the legal steps involved in starting a business can be handled without the help of a lawyer.  This includes applying for the right licenses and permits, registering your business for tax purposes, and applying for an Employer Identification Number (EIN).

  • Eh, this is probably the most accurate statement in the article.  We could argue over whether a lawyer is more apt to accurately assess the licensing and permitting requirements but in truth that depends upon each lawyer’s unique experience.  Every industry has different requirements.  If the owner has been in the industry for a while it is entirely possible they are in a better position to ascertain those requirements.
  • As for the tax registrations and EIN, there is such little effort involved in these activities that filing them is a tiny factor in any fees charged by a lawyer.

4. Creating contracts and non-disclosure agreements (NDA) – Customer contracts, partner or vendor agreements, and NDAs can all be prepared without the assistance of a lawyer.

  • OK, but do you want to be able to enforce them?  I could see certain situations where a client could adequately draft basic customer contracts and vendor agreements.  But why take the risk?  Your livelihood and the success of your business depends upon getting paid.  The words in that contract dictate everything about when, where, why, and how you may or may not get paid.  They dictate your remedies should a customer not pay.
  • In regards to the partner agreements, see my comments to point #2 above.
  • As for non-disclosure agreements, this is a big red flag.  If you have something worth protecting, something worth going through the effort of drafting a non-disclosure agreement, then it is worth paying a lawyer to draft it.
  • NDA’s are very difficult to enforce even when they are perfectly drafted.  The enforceability of these agreements often comes down to key words, the type of information involved, and even the timing of signing the document in relation to exchanging information.
  • NDA’s are almost always accompanied by non-compete agreements.  Those aren’t on the do it yourself list.

5. Creating buy-sell agreements – If you are in a business partnership or an LLC with multiple owners, you’ll need a buy-sell agreement in place to protect you, in case a co-owner dies or wants to transfer ownership.

Now, I want to point out that Caron states at the beginning that these are simply guidelines but some of these suggestions are dangerous.  They can lead to serious problems for business owners who are unaware of the pitfalls involved.  These are the types of suggestions that land business owners in an attorney’s office saying, “but I thought I was protected.”

D. Bryan Willis

D. Bryan Willis

Bryan Willis is a Tyler lawyer providing legal services across Texas in the areas of business law, litigation, probate, and estate planning.
D. Bryan Willis

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