Online Legal Tools Save Time and Money. But They Aren't Lawyers. Here's what you need to know to take advantage of the benefits and avoid the pitfalls.
Opinions expressed by Entrepreneur contributors are their own.
As a business owner, I'm always looking for ways to do things smarter and more efficiently. As an attorney, I'm always looking for ways to do things legally. These are the reasons why I'm such a fan of legal tools for business owners. The right tools can help laypeople navigate the often complex landscape of creating businesses without incurring exorbitant legal costs.
But legal tools are not all the same, and business owners who use them incorrectly or who fail to do their due diligence beforehand could find themselves in a world of hurt. From my years as a lawyer, I've learned that no two individuals or businesses are exactly alike, and there is no such thing as a one-size-fits-all approach to setting up and running a business.
Even the best legal tools are no substitute for good advice, but when combined with appropriate oversight from your attorney, these tools can provide a cost-effective vehicle for handling routine legal matters. So let's look at the kinds of legal tools that are out there and explore how best to use them.
Information about setting up and operating businesses is always helpful, and these days it is abundantly available through online searches. Many law and business schools publish articles for the general public about the legal issues involved in owning and running businesses, and law firm blogs are an excellent resource for this type of information.
Do-it-yourself legal guides, as well as self-help books written in plain English, can provide valuable help as you navigate the legalities of starting and running your business.
Basic information on forming and running businesses is also available through local bar associations and chambers of commerce.
All of these resources can help you determine what forms and processes your business needs, but they are no substitute for individual, customized legal advice from your own lawyer.
Related: The Legal Advice Mark Cuban Didn't Take
Forms and templates
A quick Google search of legal templates will turn up dozens of sites that promise to give you exactly what you need. But choose wisely. Having a lot of forms without knowing how and when to use them is like having a loaded gun without any training. The chances of something going wrong are high.
Failure to use the correct form or to understand the terms of your agreement could spell disaster for your business. Remember that under U.S. contract law, any error or ambiguity in an agreement will always be resolved in favor of the party who did not draft the agreement.
Numerous companies offer forms and templates for all kinds of legal engagements, from real-estate transactions to estate planning to sales contracts. Before starting, it is important to select the appropriate state and the correct type of agreement or form.
For artists, musicians and other creative individuals, I'd encourage exploring resources specifically targeted at content creators. This is a unique niche, and you will want to look for agreements that cover such markets as podcasts, social media, web series and live theater and that can address everything from talent management to production design to editing.
Whatever service you sign up with, and whichever template you decide to use, make sure that it is reviewed by a legal professional before sending it off for the other party's signature. It's much easier to fix a problem beforehand than to try to undo something once the ink has dried on a contract.
Related: 9 Common Legal Mistakes Small Business Owners Make
Tools with support
The best approach, in my opinion, is to avail yourself of as much of the self-help and do-it-yourself toolbox as possible, but follow up with actual legal counsel. Several companies offer a more complete solution for business owners, with the convenience and economy of using online tools to draft your own agreements while also providing important legal support and advice through licensed attorneys in your state.
These comprehensive services are similar to using do-it-yourself online tax tools while having access to tax experts who can answer questions and offer guidance before you file your returns. They can be a real bargain if you use them wisely.
The bottom line for business owners is that when purchased from reputable companies and coupled with personalized legal advice, online legal tools can truly be a godsend for entrepreneurs.