Summer may be the time for beaches and barbecues, but it can also be the time to focus on some of the less glamorous aspects of your business. If business activity slows down for a week or two while clients and customers are on vacation, this can be a great time to dive into any legal issues you may have overlooked or did not give enough attention during the rest of the year.
Here’s a checklist of five legal areas to consider this summer:
1. Company name, brand and trademarks. Many small business owners fall in love with a name, start building their company's reputation in the marketplace, only to find out that they need to stop using the very moniker that’s already printed in their ads and signage. In other cases, small business owners don’t take the right actions quickly enough to prevent others from using a name. To avoid these common pitfalls, ask yourself:
Do you have the rights to your company name? Did you perform a comprehensive search of the U.S. trademark database, as well as local state databases?
Are there any similar names already in use for activities comparable to what your firm offers (regardless of whether the other companies have a trademark)?
Have you protected your name against the future use by others? Have you applied for trademark protection?
2. Employee issues. Lawsuits filed against small businesses are often related to their employees. In a rush to get the help they need, small business owners can hire quickly, sometimes overlooking key laws and processes. If you have employees or contractors, ask yourself the following questions to make sure you’re on top of all your obligations as an employer:
Do you understand anti-discriminatory employment practices and do you have policies in place for hiring and firing people?
Are you properly classifying your employees and independent contractors? Are you exerting too much control over your contractors?
Is your paperwork up-to-date for payroll withholding, unemployment and workers' compensation?
Have you gathered the information you need to confirm your employees’ legal status?
Have you posted all necessary workplace notices?
Do you have guidelines in place about the proper use of social media on behalf of your business?
3. Protection against liability. Entrepreneurs feel a strong personal connection to the business they are building. But it’s essential to properly separate an owner from a business. Are you doing all you can to minimize your personal liability and keep your assets safe?
Have you formed an official business structure, such as a corporation or limited liability company, to separate your personal assets from those of the enterprise?
Have you opened a dedicated business bank account? Are you keeping your personal and business finances separate?
Have you signed any contracts in your personal name?
Are the corporate records filed with the state up-to-date? Have you paid the annual fee?
If your company is growing, are you forming multiple limited liability entities to protect your business assets?
4. Local laws and permits. In addition to registering your business with the state, often need to permits and licenses are required at the local (county or town) level. The specific permits will vary based on business type: For example, a building contracting firm or tattoo parlor will have different permit requirements from a graphic design shop.
Have you contacted the local board of equalization or county office to determine the licenses and permits your business needs?
Have you explored the requirements for fire permits, signage permits, health permits, sales tax licenses or professional licenses?
Is your paperwork up-to-date with local offices?
Do you know your environmental obligations?
If you run a home-based business, have you checked if you need a home occupation permit?
If you have expanded your business into another state, have you registered it there?
5. Internet law. Virtually every business uses the Internet regardless of whether it's an ecommerce or brick-and-mortar store. Review the following to see if your firm is up-to-date with the laws and regulations for conducting business over the Internet.
Does your website have a terms and conditions page published?
Do you have the rights to use third-party content (text or images)?
Have you secured your domain name and social media profiles?
Are you compliant with the Controlling the Assault of Non-Solicited Pornography and Marketing Act of 2003 and honoring all requests for opting out of the company's email marketing?
If you are gathering or using customer data, what steps are you taking to keep it secure?