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3 Common Legal Mistakes to Avoid When Working on Your Online Business

The founder of Berkley Sweetapple Law shares her legal advice for entrepreneurs.

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If you're thinking about starting a business, attorney Berkley Sweetapple wants to help you avoid making expensive legal mistakes. She sat down with Jessica Abo to discuss how she helps clients through her practice and legal template shop.

Jessica Abo: Berkley, you are the founder of a legal template shop and of Berkley Sweetapple Law. Tell us a little bit about your business and your practice.

Berkley Sweetapple:

I have a legal template shop where I offer affordable, downloadable, fill-in-the-blank legal documents, like contracts and website policies, to creative entrepreneurs. I also have a law firm where I work one on one with online business owners. I mostly handle trademarks, contracts, copyright and website policies.

All very important things. Did you always want to be a lawyer?

When I was five, my dad, who was an attorney, told me that the only way I would be able to get the pot-belly pig that I wanted as a pet was to become a lawyer and fight the city that I lived in to change the local zoning ordinances.

Did you get the pig?

I did not get the pig, but I knew that I wanted to be a lawyer just like him so that one day I could grow up and fight for things like having pet pigs. I went to law school after college but never felt like the traditional law firm path was right for me. After I graduated from law school, I created a lifestyle blog as a side hobby and decided that I wanted to monetize the blog and create a business out of it. I joined online courses and ended up meeting other creative entrepreneurs who needed legal advice about the online business/blog space. I really enjoyed working with entrepreneurs who had online businesses and began to educate myself in that area of the law, while working full-time as a litigation attorney. Seven years after graduating from law school, I stopped practicing litigation to pursue my template shop and law firm full-time.

Who are some of your clients and how do you help them?

My clients are primarily coaches, online course creators, website designers, copywriters, graphic designers, and other online business owners. My favorite practice area is trademarks, which involves helping business owners secure the exclusive right to use their business name, slogan, or logo in their industry. Because trademark law is federal, I have clients with online businesses in all 50 states.

You've been at this for a while. What would you say is the most expensive legal mistake you have seen someone make?

The most common and expensive legal mistake I see business owners make is using a business name without first making sure it's available first. If you're starting a business, it's important to make sure someone else hasn't trademarked the name first, so that you don't get a cease-and-desist letter from their attorney and are forced to rebrand. Changing a business name after you've launched, along with the branding, packaging, and web design that comes with the business name, can be frustrating and expensive. It's also important to trademark as soon as possible so that no one does it before you. If you've been using the name and competitor trademarks first, litigation can get very expensive trying to enforce your rights.

And that of course can be a total business nightmare. What are some of the legal boxes entrepreneurs should be checking?

First, make sure your business name is available before you invest in any kind of branding or web design, or before you get too attached to the name. Hire an attorney to do a comprehensive trademark search. Make sure it's available and trademark it. Second, have website policies. If you have any kind of website, like a blog or an e-commerce store, you need a couple of legal documents on your site. First, you should have terms of use, which is basically your contract with anyone who comes to your website or purchases from your website. A terms of use will contain necessary disclaimers, your refund policy, and intellectual property clauses. A privacy policy is legally required if you're collecting any kind of consumer data. Finally, make sure you have contracts with your one-on-one clients as well as any independent contractors you hire.

How do you make all of this less overwhelming for your clients?

In my template shop, I try to make it as easy as possible. I've created contract templates tailored to different kinds of service providers, that can be downloaded and filled in within twenty minutes. For one-on-one work, I try to make the client experience as easy and efficient as possible. For example, for trademarking, I work on a flat fee model so that clients aren't ever worried that costs will add up. I handle everything in the trademark process, from the application to Office Actions, so that clients don't have to worry about the legal stuff and can focus on doing what they love.

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