I was a full-time lawyer for over a decade and one thing that always surprised me was how often the people sitting across from me in my office should not have been there; a little legal education would have helped them greatly.
There are simple legal tips and business strategies you can undertake to help yourself avoid potential legal trouble. Here are my top legal tips that can make your small business life easier:
1. Do it yourself: Yes, of course sometimes you need a lawyer – that vendor did you wrong and you need to sue or whatever. But just as often, you don’t. Indeed, there are plenty of times when you can save significant amounts of money by doing it yourself. For basic needs such as forming an LLC or creating a will, do-it-yourself sites like LegalZoom can really help.
2. A strongly worded letter can get you far: When someone owes your business money, it is understandable that you may want to sue them. “Suing the guy” can be cathartic. The bad news is that the guy can sue you back. And even if they don’t, lawsuits are usually pernicious and expensive. Often, a strongly worded letter from a lawyer can provide a result that ends up almost as satisfactory, and at a fraction of the cost.
3. Don’t settle for the fee quote a lawyer gives you: If you do actually end up needing a lawyer to sue or handle a case, there is a secret that lawyers don’t want you to know. Their fees and costs, although high, are not written in stone. You can often negotiate cheaper prices. They may not reduce their hourly rate, but you can bet that paying 50 cents per photocopy is negotiable.
4. Always put it in writing: This is one of those commonsense tips, but it’s amazing how often it is overlooked. To truly protect yourself, always make sure to put things in writing. Memories fade over time, people remember things differently, and people lie. A written record prevents all of that.
5. Protect your intellectual property: If you are a creator or inventor (and these days, many of us are creating content online), it is vital that you protect your copyrights, patents, or trademarks. Patents typically require professional legal help, but copyrights and trademarks can be registered and handled on your own at www.USPTO.gov. (Note: One good thing to know about copyrights is that they need not even be registered with the USPTO to be legal; They are created as a matter of law at the moment of creation. This sentence is being copyrighted as I write it!)
6. Stop creditor harassment: If bill collectors are harassing you, you can invoke the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act to stop the phone calls. If you say or write something along the lines of, “Pursuant to the FDCPA, you are to never call me about this debt again,” they must stop calling. Two things of special note:
- First, this statement has to be made to 3rd party bill collector and not the original creditor
- Second, once the bill collector has been given notice, while they must stop calling, they still have other remedies available, such as lawsuits
7. No contract? Maybe no problem: This is a lesser-known fact – sometimes you can enforce someone’s promise to you, even if you do not have a contract. It’s called “promissory estoppel” and happens when you rely, to your detriment, on someone’s promise. Example: Let’s say a contractor asks you, a subcontractor, for a bid on a project and you give a very low bid for whatever reason, maybe you really want the gig or whatever. The contractor then gets the project and wants you to perform, but you realize that your bid was far too low. Too bad. Even though there is no formal contract, you still may be forced to live up to the low bid because the contractor relied to his or her detriment on your promise.
8. Know when to admit blame: When you’re wrong, you’re wrong, and when that’s the case, your best bet is to lick your wounds, call it a day, and call it off. Fighting will only cost you time and money. Settling may be the best, most affordable, legal advice you can receive.
About Steve Strauss
Steven D. Strauss is one of the world's leading experts on small business and is a lawyer, writer, and speaker. The senior small business columnist for USA Today, his Ask an Expert column is one of the most highly-syndicated business columns in the country. He is the best-selling author of 17 books, including his latest, The Small Business Bible, now out in a completely updated third edition. You can also listen to his weekly podcast, Small Business Success.© Steven D. Strauss.
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