Avoiding Legal Hassles
Q: In all of your years of representing businesses as a lawyer and giving small businesses advice, you must have come across some good, cheap strategies that businesses can use. If so, can you share them?
A: If I think about it, there are definitely some strategies I have learned along the way - legal and otherwise - that are inexpensive while also making your business life easier. Some are well known, others are not, but all can make a difference.
And of course, being the lawyer I am, let me note that nothing beats meeting with your own attorney who is aware of your facts and situation. But this list should give you something to talk about.
1. Get creditors to leave you alone, quickly and inexpensively: Especially these days, plenty of folks are being called incessantly by bill collectors. If you want the phone to stop ringing, one thing you can do is invoke the Fair Debt Collections Practices Act. Say something like, "Pursuant to the FDCPA, you are to never call me again about this debt." (Note: This has to be made to third party bill collector and not the original creditor.)
Once they have been given notice (doing it by certified mail is even better) they have to stop calling. They may sue you, or not, but the threats will cease.
2. Often, you can do it yourself: There are plenty of times when you don't really need a lawyer and can do it yourself far less expensively. For example, our friends here at Greatland have some great W-2 and 1099 software.
3. And when you can't do it yourself, you may only need a letter: When someone owes your business money it is understandable that you want to sue the bum. But lawsuits are messy and expensive. Many times, a strongly-worded letter from a lawyer can yield even better results than costly, complex litigation, and at a fraction of the price.
4. And if you need more than a letter, negotiate: A little secret lawyers don't want you to know is that their fees and costs are not written in stone. You can often negotiate better prices. No, they may not reduce their hourly rate, but you can bet that paying 50 cents per copy, or $2 a page for a fax is negotiable.
5. Protect your intellectual property: If you are a creator or inventor, it is vital that you protect your IP - your copyrights, patents, or trademarks. Patents usually require legal help, but copyrights and trademarks can be registered and handled on your own at www.USPTO.gov.
Also, one good thing to know about copyrights is that they need not even be registered with the federal copyright office to be legal; they are created as a matter of law at the moment of creation. See, this sentence is now copyrighted (though registration does offer a lot of extra protection).
6. What to do if you don't have a contract: This was one of the more interesting things I learned in law school - sometimes you can enforce someone's promise to you, even though you don't have an actual contract, and you don't even need to hire a lawyer.
It's called promissory estoppel and happens when you rely to your detriment on someone's promise.
Example: A contractor asks you, a subcontractor, for a bid for a project and you give a very low bid. The contractor then gets the project but you now say you can't perform with the low bid you gave. Even though there is no contract, you may be forced to live up to the low bid price because the contractor relied on your promise.
7. Know when to throw it in: When you're wrong, you're wrong, and fighting will cost you money.
Today's tip: Put it in writing. I know you know this, but make sure you do it, always. Memories fade over time, people remember things differently, and people lie. A writing prevents all of that from being dispositive.
© 2010 Steven D. Strauss, www.MrAllBiz.com