Friends and family routinely ask me whether they should use legal forms they have obtained online instead of hiring a lawyer. A variety of websites provide legal forms for wills, basic agreements, and even documentation for more complex business transactions.
In general, as the value and complexity of the transaction or agreement increases, the more important it is to get some legal advice. For example, a small business that requires a confidentiality agreement to help protect its financial performance data when shared with customers or business partners will likely be able to find several good form agreements with a simple internet search. Financial performance information is sensitive, no doubt, but in the grand scheme of protecting business secrets, an unauthorized disclosure to a third party may not significantly impact the business. On the other hand, a business that might share information regarding its core products or processes to customers or business partners will likely need a carefully drafted confidentiality agreement that ensures its ownership of the information is adequately preserved and protected in the case of an unauthorized disclosure.
The difficulty many face is properly evaluating the value and complexity of a transaction or agreement. For example, many business partners will form a business entity, such as a corporation or limited liability company, and use basic form agreements to govern that entity. For family businesses or those started by partners with an extensive amount of mutual trust, this might be perfectly fine. But for others, it is tempting to view the facts that the business is just a start-up, has few assets, and may never succeed as reasons to skip over some of the details regarding the governance of the business entity and the relationship between the owners. If the business eventually sees a certain amount of financial success, overlooking these details early on will likely create problems later in the event a business partner stops contributing or wants to leave the organization. Even if there is no ill will or malicious intent, it is significantly more difficult to address these issues later on, when a substantial amount of money is at stake, than early on, when the business has little to fight over.
And don’t forget that it is possible to use an online legal form and hire an attorney to review the document before you sign it. This is a compromise approach that allows you reduce legal fees while still obtaining some legal advice. Many attorneys will review documents for you and provide a basic opinion. It might also be worthwhile to schedule a meeting after the attorney has reviewed your documents so that you can discuss face-to-face any questions you have and any recommendations your attorney has made.