Top Ten Legal Mistakes Entrepreneurs Make (and how to avoid them) (part one)
Top ten legal mistakes entrepreneurs make and how to avoid making them, based on the author’s 25 years of providing legal advice to entrepreneurs. The focus is on how to avoid getting into legal trouble, not on specific legal steps.
Here are my top ten legal mistakes entrepreneurs make and how to avoid making them, based on this author’s 25 years of experience providing legal advice to entrepreneurs. The focus is on how to avoid getting into legal trouble, rather than a checklist of specific legal documents that you might need. In my experience entrepreneurs often get into trouble when they do not follow this advice.
1. Failing to conduct your business to avoid litigation.
Of paramount importance when starting and managing a new company is to avoid ending up in litigation. Litigation is a terrible way to resolve disputes. It is very expensive, and even more importantly, it takes away your mental energy. While you are in litigation win or lose, your company will suffer. Much of the rest of this top ten addresses ways to avoid litigation.
2. Failing to put it in writing.
All of your major agreements should be in writing. It may sound obvious, but there are many types of agreements that often don’t get put in writing.
When a company has only a small number of owners, there should be a written shareholder or partnership agreement among the owners. Often people will tell me that they are good friends and they don’t need an agreement. They are wrong. Friendships sour, people change, and people die. Peoples’ priorities change when money is involved. It is far easier to put that agreement in writing now while you get along with each other rather than after you are already fighting.
Often founders of a company will bring technology, valuable trademarks, or other proprietary information that they have already developed, with them into the company. After the company is formed, who owns this intellectual property? There should be a written agreement that clarifies ownership.
When you start to work for a new company, or when your company hires a new senior person, the basic terms of employment should be in writing. These terms include salary, bonuses, stock options, job responsibilities, and term of employment. If the new hire has to move to take the new job, is there a minimum period of employment? Does the company pay moving expenses? Any stock related agreements should also be in writing (see # 6 below).
3. Rushing into agreements.
Do not rush into agreements. Read all important agreements before you sign them. Have your attorney review all major documents. Too often, in the rush of making a business grow, entrepreneurs sign whatever is put in front of them, especially if it comes from someone they think they can trust, such as one of their partners or a venture capital firm. There is always time for review. You can and should look after your own interests. This does not mean that you are trying to kill the deal or be an obstructionist. Whoever drafted the contract took some time to prepare the document. You are entitled to take some time to review it and make sure it says what it is supposed to say, and treats you fairly (or at least as fairly as venture capitalists can treat entrepreneurs).
4. Not planning for the unexpected.
You may think nothing is going to go wrong. It is healthy to have that kind of optimism when starting a new company, and entrepreneurs are inherently optimistic people. You have to be to start your own company. But things do go wrong. You need to plan for the unexpected.
Go over your plan of action for your company and try to think what could go wrong and what would happen if it did. For example, what would happen if one of the founders died unexpectedly?
Anticipate that founders will have disputes. Fifty percent of all marriages end in divorce. The divorce rate among entrepreneurs is probably much higher. You may think that “even if the founders have a dispute or one of us leaves the company, we will be able to work out our differences. After all we are all reasonable intelligent people and we are friends. Nothing will come between that.” But it often does, especially when money is at stake. Plan for the unexpected now while you are still friends.
This is another reason to use attorneys. Clients rarely come back to their attorney to tell them the agreement worked exactly as planned; it is only when something goes wrong that they call their attorney. So attorneys are used to thinking about and planning for the unexpected. Your attorney can help you anticipate problems and prepare to avoid them or at least find a way to deal with them in an orderly non-litigation fashion.
5. Trusting people who say “You can trust me.”
If someone says “We don’t need the lawyers” or “We don’t need fancy contracts because you can trust me,” run, do not walk, and run away fast. Someone who can be trusted never has to say “trust me.” They have nothing to hide. They say, “Sure, we can put it in writing” and “Sure, have your lawyer review this.” and “What else do you need from me to assure you?” (For further discussion of this issue, see my biznik article Don’t Trust People Who Say You Can Trust Me.)
To be continued.
Learn more about the author, Gary Marshall.
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