How to Use the Attorney General to Go After Bad Clients

“Stairs to Subway” by Giuseppe Milo from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

One of the frustrations I hear about from entrepreneurs is getting stiffed – either they paid a company to do a job and they didn’t perform, or they did a project or task for a client and they didn’t pay. In many of these situations, the amount in question is low enough that it’s not worth it to hire a lawyer or even put in the time and effort to take the other side to small claims court.

Even if a client hires us to send a demand letter, there’s always the risk that the other side won’t comply, and then they’ll be in the same position as before, but now they have our bill to pay too.

If the client in question is a business, there may be options to go after them through the government at no cost to you.

Attorney General Consumer Complaints

Check the Attorney General’s (AG’s) Office website for the state where your non-performing client lives (not where you live if you live in a different state). For every state that I’ve checked for a client to date, the AG’s Office has had a division or at least a page on their website for consumer complaints. Typically, it’s a form where you provide your contact information, a summary of the situation, and the remedy you want.

If the AG’s Office thinks your complaint has merit, they’ll investigate the situation, including them sending a copy of your complaint to the company and with a firm deadline for providing a response. Even if your client didn’t respond to a demand letter from you or your lawyer, they will likely be more inclined to respond to the AG’s Office.

In my experience, companies are motivated to resolve these matters quickly and avoid the risk of having fraud charges filed against them. This may result in the client paying you, performing as they were supposed to, or giving you your money back.

Pros and Cons of Going Through the AG’s Office

Pro: It’s free to file a complaint. You don’t need a lawyer to do it; however, it may be prudent to have a lawyer help you fill out the form to make sure you’re presenting the most compelling argument in light of the applicable laws. Your lawyer may know the key phrases to use to convince the AG’s Office to take your complaint more seriously than if you’d written it by yourself.

Con: You have less control over the situation. If the AG’s Office pursues the matter and files a complaint in court against your client, you will not be the plaintiff. The state will be the plaintiff. You will be less involved in the negotiations and settlement (assuming there is one).

Pro: It’s less work for you. If you were pursuing this matter directly against your client, such as filing a lawsuit, there could be meetings and calls with you lawyers, documents to review, and other work where you would need to be involved. Or if you were doing it on your own and going to small claims court, you would still have to prepare your Complaint (lawsuit), file it, get the other person served, and show up for your court date.

The AG’s Consumer Complaint is the Hidden Alternative

Most people I’ve spoken with about these types of business challenges, don’t know about Consumer Complaints. I’ve suggested it at least three times in the last two weeks to friends and clients alike. I can’t say this option is available in every state, but it’s worth investigating if you have a non-performing client that’s a business.

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New Photographers: Signed Contracts Needed at the Start of Every Project

“He Walks Dogs” by Damian Gadal from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

I recently heard a question from a new photographer. They are new to the business and focused on building their brand and rapport with potential clients. Their question was, “Should I have a contract on hand at the beginning stages of my business?”

My response was an emphatic: “Yes!”

Photography Contracts: Every Job, Every Time

A contract is a relationship management document. It puts everyone on the same page about what each side is giving and getting and sets the expectations about how each side should behave.

I tell my photographer clients to never accept a job without a signed contract, this applies even to TFP shoots (trade for photos). Your contract should outline what the client is hiring you to do, how/when you’ll be compensated, how the client can use the images, and who owns the copyright. It should also have terms that address how problems will be resolved.

If the Prospect Balks at a Contract

If you have a prospective client who says they “don’t think a contract is necessary,” turn and run. This raises to red flags for me: either they don’t understand how the business works, or they have devious reasons for not wanting a contract that could bite you in the butt in the future.

One of the best pieces of advice I got early in my career was, “You never regret the client you didn’t take.” I have had no regrets about declining a representation when a client balks at how I do business. Every time I decline one of these clients, I feel like I’ve dodged a bullet.

Don’t Worry that Requiring a Contract will Push Clients Away

Don’t worry about being perceived as “pushy” my holding firm that a contract is required. You can be polite and respectful while say, “This is how I do business. If you don’t want to sign a contract, that’s fine, but you won’t be working with me.”

You set the rules for how you work with clients. If they balk at your contract (assuming it’s reasonable), they shouldn’t be your client. A reasonable client would expect you to require a contract. A person with any business acumen won’t want to work with you without one.

Let the prospects who don’t want contracts to self-select out. If you have problems with a client at the beginning of the relationship, it’s an indicator that they will be problematic throughout the project.

If the prospect asks for a referral to another photographer, I recommend saying, “All the reputable photographers I know won’t take on a client without a signed contract.”

It’s Cheaper and Easier to Prevent Legal Problems than to Fix Them

This has been proven time and time again in my legal career. When a client comes to me with a business dispute, one of my first questions is, “What does your contract say?” When my client doesn’t have a contract, I have to piece together the terms of their agreement from emails, text messages, and the parties’ actions. Often my client spends more just having me piece these things together than what it would have cost them to have a custom contract template made.

Additionally, in a dispute, it’s much easier to create a demand letter than references the terms the other side agreed to and back them into a corner where they have to try to defend the indefensible rather than assert what the terms of the agreement are from the assembly of bits and pieces of communications and actions that the other side can more easily debate.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you need help with your photography contracts and managing client expectations, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common questions professional photographers face, including what terms to include in every contract template. Leading up to the release date, I’m sending weekly updates with tips about the legalities of photography. Please add yourself to this exclusive list to stay in the loop, and get first dibs on discounts!

Photographer Disputes: What Happens If You Don’t Deliver

https://www.flickr.com/photos/76377775@N05/8560939745
Las Fallas Valencia Spain Angry Woman” by Keith Ellwood from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

As I was researching photographers’ legal questions, I stumbled onto a question posted by an upset client: “The photographer hasn’t given me my photos. It’s been six months. What can I do about that?”

Whoa! That sounds exceptionally bad. I’m curious how complex this project was and when the photographer said they’d deliver images to the client.

I don’t know the circumstances regarding this person’s situation, but here’s what could happen if a client is unsatisfied with your work, or worse, you fail to deliver as promised.

Check the Contract’s Dispute Resolution Provision

Whenever anyone comes to me with a business dispute, like “They didn’t pay me,” or “I didn’t get what I paid for,” the first question I ask is:

What does your contract say?

Your photography contract should have a dispute resolution provision that states how disputes are going to be resolved, where it’s going to be resolved, and which state law governs the agreement.

One of the most common dispute resolution clauses I put in photography contracts says if there’s a dispute, the parties will try, in good faith, to resolve the matter within 30 days. If that doesn’t resolve the matter, then the parties agree to resolve the matter is a court located in Maricopa County, Arizona, and the agreement is governed by Arizona law. (I recommend Maricopa County and Arizona law because that’s where I’m located. You don’t want to pay for your lawyer’s travel expenses if you don’t have to.) I usually include a clause that says the losing party must pay the prevailing party’s attorneys’ fees and costs.

Regardless of what the contract states about resolving disputes, my first step in most disputes is sending a demand letter that puts the other side on notice that further legal recourse will be sought. This letter lets the other side know that the offended party is serious and willing to fight, and it gives them a chance to resolve the matter before it will be taken to the next level.

Report to the Attorney General’s Office for Consumer Fraud

You may not know this, but your state’s Attorney General’s Office may have a forum to submit a consumer complaint and report suspected fraud. Arizona has this, and it’s not a fun process to go through the subsequent investigation, which could include being subpoenaed for a deposition under oath and/or having a claim for fraud filed against you. If a court found that you committed fraud, it could have devasting consequences for your business, including your ability to be a professional photographer. Taking a client’s money and failing to provide the images could easily be an act of fraud.

If a client wanted to pursue this option, they don’t need a lawyer to file a consumer complaint. They can go online and get the form themselves. The Attorney General’s Office would foot the bill for the investigation, and likely expect to be reimbursed by you if you lose or come to a settlement. Conversely, if a consumer complaint is filed against you, you should hire a lawyer to represent you.

Bad Review

The least problematic a dissatisfied client could do is leave you a negative review on Google, Yelp, or Facebook, or they could post about you online on their social media accounts or their website. As long as everything they post about you is true or their opinion, it’s perfectly legal.

Hopefully, you never find yourself in this type of situation, but if it happens, please don’t ghost your client. Keep the lines of communication open as you work towards a resolution. One of the most common complaints I hear from customers is that the person they hired stopped responding to emails, calls, or texts, and so they felt like they had no choice but to ask a lawyer or the state for help.

Lights Camera LawsuitTM

If you want help with the business or legal side of being a photographer, I hope you’ll check out my online course coming out later this year: “Lights, Camera, Lawsuit: The Legal Side of Professional Photography.” It will address the most common problems professional photographers face, including contracts, copyright, and managing client expectations. Please add yourself to this exclusive list for updates on the course and helpful information leading up to the release.

Why Contracts Have So Many Definitions

https://www.flickr.com/photos/eleaf/2561831883

Iron Horse Bicycle Race Durango Women 10″ by Eleaf from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

This week, I had a chat with someone who was concerned about the media release provision in a contract to be in a cycling race. It said by signing up for the race, you give the organizers permission to use any video or images of you, your likeness, you name, and your biographic information for any purpose without need any additional information from you. He was worried that the race organizers could sell his life story without his permission.

I’ve seen this provision on every race contract I’ve signed – and it wasn’t one of the ones I altered. This type of provision is on lots of contracts, event tickets, even on A-frame signs around the state fair. Organizers want to use the photos from their event to promote the organization and its activities. They want to be able to make you their poster child if they snap an amazing photo of you. They want to be able to caption a race photo with “Chris Jones, 37, of Truth or Consequences, New Mexico . . .”

These organizers don’t want to sell your story to make the next Lifetime Movie. I know this because (1) they don’t know your life story and (2) they’re not in the business of sell stories for the next movie of the week.

This conversation reminded me of why contracts have so many definitions. Sometimes they start with pages of definitions. They help eliminate confusion and avoid disputes when questions arise down the line.

If there is a dispute about the meaning of a word in a contract, and both sides have a reasonable interpretation of it, the court will side with the person who didn’t draft the contract, unless the contract states otherwise. (Check your jurisdiction’s rules to see if the same rule exists where you live.)

Going back to the would-be racer, I told them if they had concerns about what a term in the agreement meant, they should email the organizers for clarification. (Never be afraid to ask questions about a contract before signing it.) If there’s a dispute later surrounding the meaning of the provision, they would be able to use the email response as the basis for their reasonable belief as to what it meant and to counter any contradictory statement by the other side.

If you’re in a situation where you need to create, draft, or negotiate a contract, please call a contract lawyer for help. (This week, my editor sent me an FYI email about a company in Columbia that is selling a “Pack Of Professionally Drafted Legal Contracts” for $24. I responded with “Let me know how that $24 contract holds up when challenged in court.”)

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How to Legally Use User-Generated Content

https://www.flickr.com/photos/zoidberg72/16243539933
Selfie by dr_zoidberg from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Here’s a question I get from companies and their marketers: What are the legal dos and don’ts for using user-generated content? These are situations where a company wants to use a photo, video, or text created by one of their fans, usually from a site like Instagram, Facebook, or Trip Advisor. Many companies merely want to approach the person through the platform where they found the content they want to use and ask for permission to use it. While this strategy is convenient, it may not be in the company’s best interest.

Using Content Within a Platform

It’s easiest when a company wants to share someone’s post within the social media platform – e.g., sharing someone’s Instagram photo on the company’s Instagram. Many social media sites build this option into the platform where you don’t even have to ask for permission to share someone’s post on another’s account.  

Of course, I’m a risk-adverse lawyer so I tell my clients to review the terms of service first to see what happens just in case it turns out the person who created the post you shared didn’t have the right to do so and now you have to deal with the fallout. Depending on the circumstances, I might contact the person to ask the person if they took the photo (which would indicate if they’re likely the copyright holder), try to verify that the original poster is complying with the platform’s rules

Using Content Across Different Platforms

Here’s where it gets a little more complicated. These are the situations where you want to take content from someone’s post on one platform and share it on a different social media site, your website, or another third-party platform. For this situation, I recommend you have a contract drafted by a lawyer. You could have them create a template for you if curating user-generated content is part of your marketing plan.

If I were creating a contract template for obtaining permission to use content created by a user or fan, I’d likely include terms such as:

  • The user owns the IP in the content: either they created it or they have permission to use it
  • The user has authority to grant the company permission to use the content
  • The user grants the company a perpetual, irrevocable, worldwide, sublicensable, paid-in-full, royalty-free license to the company to use the content for any purpose without needing the person’s consent or credit, including the creation of derivative works (or in the alternative, that the user grants the company a copyright assignment)
  • The user will reimburse the company’s legal fees and damages if it is accused of wrongdoing because the company used the user’s content

Such a contract would also include boilerplate verbiage, like a dispute resolution provision that states how the company and user will resolve disputes if one occurs.

Always Apply Reality

In any potential legal situation, be sure to apply reality. If a company wants to use a photo with two people in it, whoever posted the image may not be able to speak on behalf of the other person in the photo, and you may need release from identifiable people to avoid being accused of violating their right of publicity.

Additionally, it will likely take longer to get permission if you want to use images and other content across platforms. Be sure to build that into your timeline if your marketing plan involves using user-generated content.

There are also those who may question whether it’s worthwhile to have a lawyer create a contract for these circumstances. When there are no issues, a contract may seem superfluous; however, contracts are imperative in situations where there is a dispute and/or the parties forget the terms of their agreement. When you work with your lawyer to create you contract, make sure it has provisions that will apply to situations that are likely to occur as well as the worst-case scenarios.

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Side Hustle Contracts

https://www.flickr.com/photos/joybot/6701744493
Do the Hustle! by Joybot from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Note: The links for Chris Guillebeau’s books are affiliate links.

I admire people like Chris Guillebeau who run with ideas and make stuff happen. He’s written a number of books, including The $100 Startup: Reinvent the Way You Make a Living, Do What You Love, and Create a New Future. The most recent book of his that I wrote was Side Hustle: From Idea to Income in 27 Days where he walks you through, day-by-day what you should do to launch a side hustle business. It’s a good book, but Chris and I disagree about how to approach contracts.

Day 14: Contract

Chris calls Day 14 “Set Up a Way to Get Paid.” This chapter covers selecting a payment system, creating invoices, and using simple contracts. For your contract, he says you only need to specify what you’ll do, how much you’ll get paid, when you’ll get paid, and “any protections you require.” Chris also says that that you can communicate all of this via email without needing a separate agreement document.

<cringe><shudder>

While Chris is technically right, I would never advise a client to operate their business this way. This is the type of contract that works when nothing goes wrong; however, contracts exist to save you in two situations:

  1. When there’s confusion about the parties’ obligations, and
  2. When there’s a problem or dispute.

Always Have a Separate Written Contract

If there is situation where lawyers are needed to resolve a dispute, the first thing I ask my client is “Where’s your contract?” If it’s a series of emails, and perhaps some text messages, and phone calls or conversations you claim occurred, the first part of my job will be compiling the terms of the agreement.

When there’s a single agreement, all the terms are in one place. And when the contract requires that all changes must be in writing and signed by both parties, it minimizes the risk of confusion or a he-said-she-said situation.

When you don’t have the terms of the contract in a single document, it opens the door for complications in the future. In many cases, it’s more cost-effective to have a lawyer create a contract template for your side hustle than to have to hire one to piece together the terms from the parties’ communications and actions. 

Minimum Contract Terms

In general, I don’t advise people to write their own contracts (unless they have a law degree or sufficient contract experience), but here are the basic terms I’d expect to find a side hustle contract:

  • Parties to the contract
  • Purpose of the contract
  • Payment terms, including what happens if the customer doesn’t pay (e.g. entrepreneurs who require ½ the fee up front and ½ upon completion)
  • Intellectual property terms – related to creation, assignment, and/or license
  • Where and how problems will be resolved, including the venue, jurisdiction, and which state law will govern
  • If/how the parties can make changes to the contract
  • “Entire agreement” – all the terms in the contract are in the agreement
  • “Severability” – if the contract has any invalid terms then the parties will throw those out and the rest of the contract will remain
  • A provision that states if a party chooses not to use a right granted by the contract, they don’t waive their right to use it in the future

When I approach a new contract for a client, I try to mentally walk through the customer’s journey and address the problems that the client is trying to avoid and pre-plan how you want to deal with problems when they occur.

Using a Lawyer for your Side Hustle

If you’re going to have a side hustle, I recommend you sit down with a lawyer for an hour. Tell them your goals and your budget. An understanding lawyer will tell you about the legal issues you need to be aware of, can do a quick trademark search to see if the name(s) you want to use are already registered, and they can tell you want you can do yourself and what tasks you should hire a lawyer to do for you.

A Few Final Thoughts

Thinking about what missteps I’ve seen companies inadvertently commit, here are a few extra tidbits of information:

  • The terms of service for a website, online course, or mobile app are contracts. Write them or have them created with care.
  • Please don’t rip of another company’s terms of service and just change out the company and product names. That’s a recipe for trouble. You don’t want to represent that you do things that you don’t. I’ve also seen situations where the company’s terms of service says that it’s governed by New Jersey law and the company has no connection to that state. (The company they stole the terms from was in New Jersey.)

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Legal Checklist to Protect Online Entrepreneurs

Labib Ittihadul from Flickr (Public Domain)

I was recently asked to create a list of what legal steps an entrepreneur should take if they operate solely online to protect their business. The person who asked appears to be primarily a YouTuber. Here’s the list I created for him: 

1. Consider having Two LLCs. One is a holding company for the intellectual property and licenses the IP to the other LLC to use it. This way if the holding company is sued for infringement, there are no assets to be collected if the holding company loses the lawsuit. We recommend this tactic for many businesses, not just online entrepreneurs.

2. Create an Operating Agreement if the LLC has more than One Owner.  Yes, this includes if you go into business with relatives, best friend, or romantic partner. This is a master document that lays out how the company will operate, each person’s obligations and responsibilities, and how the owners will address problems when they occur.

3. Move your Website to a Server Outside the U.S. The reason for doing is if there is ever a court order against the website, it will be more difficult to enforce if the website is house by a company outside the U.S. and not bound by U.S. law.

4. Register your Trademarks with the USPTO. So many legal issues could be minimized or avoided if every company properly registered their trademarks. This could include company names, product names, event names, logos, and slogans. When you have a registered trademark, you can stop a competitor from entering the marketplace while using a trademark that is confusingly similar to yours. If you have a strong international presence, it may be wise to register your trademarks in multiple countries.

5. Create a Copyright Strategy. Many professional content creators do guest posts for and collaborations with others and allow guest posts on their sites. It’s best to have contract templates for these situations that include clarification about who owns the copyright, what the other person gets, any limitations regarding the content, and an indemnification clause if appropriate.

Additionally, your copyright strategy should address when and how you can use others’ materials. You should have an understanding about fair use and where to look for materials that come with a license to modify the original as well as a license to use it for commercial purposes.

6. Consider Registering your Copyrights. You do not have to register your copyright to get your copyright rights, and you do not have to register everything you create; however, it’s beneficial to have the discussion about what you might want to register. You are required to register your copyright if you want to sue for infringement. Additionally, I frequently recommend registration to people who want to license or sell their copyrights.

7. Create an Action Plan for Addressing Suspected IP Infringement. Decide how you want to respond to suspected infringement before it occurs, so that you or your lawyer can be prepared to respond based on your desired outcome when it happens. Depending on how you want to respond, there may be things you need to do before the infringement occurs to best protect your rights.

8. Have a Contributor Contract Template. This is the contract you will use with people who contribute content to you, your site, your channel, or a social media account. It will state what rights each party has to use the content – most likely that they own it, and they grant you a license to use for certain purposes. It should also have an indemnification clause to protect you in the event you’re accused of violating another person’s IP rights or other legal wrong by using what the contributor provided to you.

9. Have an Influencer Contract Template. This is the contract to use when brands hire you so that the expectations on both sides are clear, and you state that you comply with FTC regulations. (You should probably have internal documents about FTC compliance as well.) Companies that hire influencers may have their own contracts that they want to use, but having your own template will help you analyze their contract to see how well it addresses your needs and concerns.

10. Create Website Terms and a Privacy Policy. These documents may need to comply with U.S. privacy laws, the Canadian Anti-Spam Legislation (CASL), and the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), and manage the expectations of visitors to your website. Many of the new privacy laws interfere with how many companies collect and use others’ personal information. These issues are complicated. Many people copy another content creator’s terms and privacy policy, but that could be a recipe for disaster if what you use is insufficient for your needs.

This may not be a complete or comprehensive list of legal steps to take to protect your business. It’s always best to consult a lawyer who understands the legal implications related to your business, preferably someone to specializes in business, intellectual property, and internet law. Hopefully this list gives you a place to start to evaluate your legal needs as a professional content creator or online entrepreneur.

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If You’re Going to “Wing It” as an Entrepreneur

“Yay!!” by Subharnab Majumdar from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Plenty of entrepreneurs start out as a person or two, a business idea, and a shoestring budget. They know their craft but have limited or not experience starting or running a business. They don’t know what they don’t know – and that’s what gets them into trouble.

Many entrepreneurs employ the “we’ll learn as we go” approach to operating a business. Often times these are smart people, but if they get too focused on doing their business that they don’t take care of business within their operation, it can lead to costly mistakes: thousands of dollars in legal expenses and painful heartache to try to fix a problem that was completely avoidable.

Real-Life Facepalm Moments
I’ve had countless times where a business owner comes to me for help and I cringe and think, “We could have helped you avoid this if you had come to us sooner.” This is just a sample of my facepalm moments as a lawyer:

KAWS “At This Time” Sculpture by Guilhem Vellut from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

  • Owners who don’t create a business entity: put their personal assets at risk if the business gets sued;
  • LLC with multiple owners and no operating agreement: painful business “divorce” when things didn’t work out between owners;
  • Filing a trademark application with the USPTO that wasn’t trademarkable: the application might have had a chance if the description of the products and services was written more effectively;
  • Not filing a trademark and your competition files a trademark application that’s confusingly similar to or the same as yours: costly to make a claim against them and it may not be successful, which could force you to rebrand even though you were using it first;
  • Flawed customer contracts: doesn’t fully protect the company’s interests or address all likely contingencies;
  • Hiring a third-party contractor without a contract: if the person is hired to create an original work for the company, the company won’t own the copyright in what they hired the person to create and may have to pay to acquire it;
  • Working without a contract: so many problems. Whenever I get a call about a business deal gone bad, my first question is usually, “What does your contract say?” (Ideally, you want to be in a situation where, if the other side doesn’t perform as you agreed you can essentially respond with, “F*ck you, pay me.”)

If You’re Going to “Wing It”
If you are starting a business, my unsolicited advice is “Do your homework.” Invest the time to learn what goes into running your business and figure out what you don’t know. Reach out to established entrepreneurs to ask for their advice and avail yourself to resources in your community. In Arizona, we have dozens of these organizations like Arizona Small Business Association, Local First Arizona, and SCORE.

Even if you don’t think you can afford it, look into hiring a business and intellectual property lawyer for an hour. Bring them your ideas of what you want to do, and ask for their recommendations on how to make it happen. A good lawyer will respect your budget and tell you what you can do yourself and what you should hire a lawyer do for you. They can also recommendations resources to help you based on their experiences helping others.

If I’ve learned one thing as a lawyer it is that it’s easier and cheaper to prevent problems than to fix them.

True Story
Years ago, I worked with a new company where the owners hired me to create their operating agreement. I asked a lot of questions about things like intellectual property rights, compensation, and worst-case scenarios (e.g. disability of an owner) to create custom provisions for this document.

A few years later, the owners realized it wasn’t working out between then and decided to part ways. Their operating agreement dictated how they would address this situation, and they hired us again to revise the agreement to account for the exit of one of the owners. The process was professional, respectful, and cost-effective. I’m sure there were hurt feelings on both sides, but having this operating agreement helped the owners mange them and made for a smooth transition.

If you want more information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, you can send me an email (Note: I can’t give advice to non-clients), and I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. You can also connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

The 10 Legal Commandments of Entrepreneurship

“Stained Glass Window Full of Light and Color” by Stock Photos for Free from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Since becoming a lawyer in 2011, I’ve had the privilege of working with businesses on a variety of legal issues. Looking back at some of the most cringe-worthy moments I’ve experiences I’ve had and heard about from other business and intellectual property lawyers, I’ve come up with a list of the 10 legal commandments of entrepreneurship:

 

1. Thou shall have a business entity.

When you start a business, create a business entity – an LLC or corporation. Your accountant can tell you which option is best for you. By separating the business from your personal assets, you limit your personal liability if the business is sued. If you open a business without an entity (aka a sole proprietorship), you don’t have this layer of protection.

 

2. Thou shall maintain your corporate veil.

Creating a business entity is how you begin to limit your liability, and you perfect that protection with a “corporate veil.” This means having a separate bank account and credit card for the business, and the business accounts pay for business expenses and your personal accounts pay for personal expenses. This creates a clear delineation between where the company ends and the person begins in terms of your finances. If the company is sued and loses, it’s clear which assets belong to the company and your person assets are protected.

 

3. Thou shall have a signed contract at the beginning of a business relationship.

When you are hired by a client or hire someone, start with a signed contract. A contract is a relationship-management document. It is your master document that puts everyone on the same page regarding their responsibilities. This will help you avoid confusion and resolve problems. When a client comes to me with a problem with a customer, I often start by asking “What does your contract say?”

 

4. Thou shall be thoughtful and careful about looking online for a contract template.

Looking at templates online is a good place to get ideas about terms you might want to have in your contract, but don’t indiscriminately use any contract you find. You don’t know where it came from or whether it’s suitable for your needs.

 

5. Thou shall take the time to fully read and understand a contract before signing it.

Never be afraid to ask questions or request changes when considering a contract offered to you. Don’t sign anything you don’t understand, because if you sign it and later regret it, you may be stuck with it.

 

6. Thou shall respect others’ copyrights.

Do not use others’ work without permission. Create your own original content. It’s ok to be inspired by and quote others, but add something to the conversation. If we’re talking about images, do not pull any image you find using a regular Google search. Seek out sources that provide licenses for use, including images available under Creative Commons. If there is an image you want to use that’s not available, contact the copyright holder and ask for permission. To date, I’ve never had anyone say, “No.”

 

7. Thou shall check the USPTO before branding a company or product.

When entrepreneurs think “branding,” lawyers think “trademark.” The United States Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) has a database where you can see what company names, product names, and logos others have applied for and registered for their products and services. You don’t want to fall in love with, or invest a lot of time and money in, a branding idea to find out that it’s already been claimed by someone else.

 

8. Thou shall outsource your taxes.

Every entrepreneur needs an accountant. Let them do what they’re good at.

In the time it would take you to try to do your own taxes, you could make more than enough money to pay an accountant to do your taxes for you.

 

9. Thou shall consult thy attorney.

Even when you want to do things yourself, talk to your lawyer to make sure you’re not setting yourself and your business up for future problems. My most cringe-worthy moments as a lawyer have been problems clients created for themselves that we could have helped them avoid completely if they had told us what they were thinking about doing. It is easier and cheaper to prevent legal problems than to fix them.

 

10. Thou shall act with integrity.

Put your energy into your own business, creating quality products or services for your audience.

You don’t need to stoop to bad-mouthing the competing, using trademarks that are confusing similar to others, or ride other’s coattails by doing things like using a web domain that will allow you to pull an audience based on someone else’ popularity (e.g., cybersquatting). Be so good at what you do that you don’t need to use others to make a name for yourself.

One last note: If you’re an entrepreneur, don’t be afraid to ask for help. Accountants help you make money, lawyers help you keep it, and your peers will share their experiences so you can learn from them. If you are an entrepreneur, or have plans to become one, I hope you have people around you who can help you be successful.

If you want additional information about the legal dos and don’ts of starting and running a business, I maintain a mailing list where I share my thoughts about being a lawyer/entrepreneur, updates about projects I’m working on, upcoming speaking engagements, and I may provide information about products, services, and discounts. Please add yourself if you’re interested. You can also contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn.

Ultrasabers v. Phoenix Comicon | Contracts Matter

Lightsabers Long Exposure by Brian Neudorff from Flickr (Creative Commons License)

Phoenix Comicon nearly started with a bang – literally. On the first day of the con, Mathew Sterling, arrived at the Phoenix Convention Center with a loaded shotgun, three handguns, and knives, allegedly intending to kill actor Jason David Frank and police officers. He was arrested and charged with attempted murder.

Following this incident, Phoenix Comicon changed its rule for the event and banned all prop weapons. Likewise, it instructed vendors who sell prop weapons to wrap them when completing a sale. This is where the problems between Ultrasabers and Phoenix Comicon began.

Ultrasabers sells replica lightsabers and was a repeat vendor at Phoenix Comicon. There was a dispute between the two, resulting in Phoenix Comicon demanding that Ultrasabers pack up their booth and vacate the premises on the Friday night of the con. It’s unclear exactly what transpired between these two companies. Ultrasabers and Phoenix Comicon each released a statement about this matter.

As a lawyer, one of my first thoughts when I heard about this situation was, “This is why contracts matter.” For full disclosure: I don’t represent either party in this matter. I didn’t write this vendor contract. I haven’t even seen it. I’m just an outsider looking in.

Contracts don’t exist for when things go right. Contracts exist for when things go wrong. A contract is a relationship management document; it helps prevent and/or solve problems between people in a relationship. It’s imperative that contracts are written with a thorough scope, and that the recipient review it thoughtfully before signing it, because if things take a downward turn, the contract will be the roadmap you rely on to achieve a resolution. Whenever a client or prospective client comes to me with a contract dispute, one of the first questions I ask is, “What does your contract say?” Footnote: The most common response I get to this question is, “We didn’t have one.”

In regards to Ultrasabers v. Phoenix Comicon, I don’t know what actually happened between the two or whether this situation is resolved at this point. I hope this issue was a reminder, or perhaps a wake-up call, to people who participate as a vendor or performer to read their contracts carefully before signing them. If you sign a contract and you later regret it, there may be nothing you can do to change the rules of that relationship at that point.

If you have questions about your contract needs, you can contact me directly or connect with me on TwitterFacebookYouTube, or LinkedIn. You can also get access to more exclusive content that is available only to people on my mailing list, by subscribing here.