Five Scary Legal Blowups You Can Avoid in Your Business

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It’s Halloween. Kids get scared by monsters and spooky Jack O’Lanterns. Adults may relive pent-up fears from the rest of the year or (hopefully) get a playful reprieve.

Here are five scary legal blowups you can avoid in your business by careful, timely planning. Start tomorrow, after resting up from the Tricks and Treats.

[Note: This post was written while I was a practicing attorney running a solo law practice. Since April 2015, I have been working with attorney, executive and entrepreneur clients as a career coach and writer, and I am not currently available for legal engagements.]

1) You have an unstable or otherwise difficult business partner and do not have proper agreements. This seems like an obvious point, but unfortunately it is often overlooked. Document your rights and obligations with your business partners before disputes arise. If you visit Avvo.com or one of the other sites at which “real people” can post questions anonymously to attorneys, a topic you will see over and over again is how to dissolve a business relationship in which there are no legal agreements governing the relationship of the parties. A little investment upfront to work out what happens in a dispute will not only save you stress if there’s a meltdown or bombshell, or your business partner suddenly disappears or dies (which does happen), but it also will contribute to amicable relations in the good times.

2) You don’t know what your lease says. I am continuously surprised at how many friends and clients come to me with questions like – can I get out of my lease early without penalty? how do I do it? Your lease may be one of your biggest expenditures as a business. You should know what it says before you sign it, and you should write it down in a memo (or at least handwritten notes) that you file with the lease, so you remember later what it says. This goes for all big ticket contracts, in fact. Know not only how much they cost to stay in, but how much it would cost you to get out of them if needed.

5) Your address is wrong with the Secretary of State or contract counterparties  and you do not receive notice of fines or litigation. If you do not update your address, you will not be notified, and this is to your detriment. Fines and penalties can pile up, and if you do not receive notice of a litigation a default judgment can be entered against you without your knowledge or ability to defend yourself. Have an individual in your organization (and a backup) who is charged with reviewing key matters if your contact information changes temporarily or permanently.

4) You do not have a federal registration for your trademark or service mark, and someone applies for it first. If you have already invested considerable time in creating and advertising your business name and are operating in multiple states, or you have a serious intent to do so, it is worth the small investment to hire an attorney and, if he or she advises, file a federal trademark application. In the long run, it is more economical – and causes less headaches and heartaches – to either (1) have your registration completed first, without the need to try to cancel a competitor’s application on grounds that you are the prior, senior user, or (2) know before expending even further time and funds in a mark that registration may not be available. (See my prior post about choosing a mark and make sure that, if your attorney advises, you complete a trademark search as well.)

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5) You have “independent contractors” on the books who are really employees. Businesses often hire individuals as independent contractors or consultants without considering the serious downside if they are reclassified as employees. Take a look at the Department of Labor’s press releases about employee misclassification for some of the enforcement activity in this area. There is no single standard to distinguish between employee or independent contractor (e.g., click here re: the FLSA or here for the NY DOL). What is clear is that simply calling someone a consultant does not mean he or she is not an employee. And the penalties can haunt you longer than any ghost on Halloween.

Law Office of Anne Marie Segal is located in Stamford, Connecticut, provides legal counsel to businesses and individuals in Connecticut and New York and advises select national and international clients. Please visit www.amscounsel.com for more information.

None of the information posted on this site constitutes legal advice or forms an attorney-client relationship, and there may be facts not discussed here that are relevant to your situation. This is a public forum. Please do not post confidential or fact-specific information regarding your legal questions on this site.