Business Divorce – The Not So Odd Couple

Recently, I added the certification of family law mediator to my already extensive list of mediation certifications to the surprise of many of my friends and associates. It should not be surprising that an attorney with an active mediation practice would mediate family law matters in addition to other business, insurance, bankruptcy, patent and intellectual property and other disputes, it’s just that my law practice has been heavily focused on business matters and it appears that I have never been engaged in the area of family law, but actually I have.

My typical practice involves representing businesses and their owners in all aspects of business life.  I have been the Chief Legal Officer and Chief Administrative Officer for public and private companies, have navigated Boards of Directors and CEOs through Chapter 11 Bankruptcies, hostile take overs, mergers, acquisitions and a variety of other crises. Sometimes those crises and matters include the addition of new owners, the separation of executives and owners, disgruntled minority owners and overcoming deadlocks. In my post “big” business life, I have started a law firm that offers the same quality and level of service provided to our nation’s biggest companies to small and middle-sized businesses on a fee structure that smaller businesses can afford. The issues are no simpler; the legal services no less complex, and the need to protect business assets, confidentiality, dignity and reputation at least as challenging.

Complicating the business of small business today is the close relationship between business partners and life partners. I am finding often that the break-up of life partners can cause mass disruption to unrelated business interests and partners, especially when there are no provisions in operating agreements or shareholders agreements covering these issues. Sometimes, life partners are business partners as well. Even without the complication of life partners, I am finding that business people go into business with others without adequate diligence and without formalizing agreements at all. In the last six months alone, I have been engaged or consulted as either a mediator or lawyer in at least a half dozen situations in which business partners are seeking a “business divorce.” And I must say, my skills and knowledge gained through family law mediation combined with my business law knowledge and acumen has come in pretty handy.

If I can help you as a mediator confidentially settle your business disputes, or help you as an attorney negotiate your deal with your partners, please contact me by completing the form below or calling our office at 813.999.0199.

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IP Basics for Start-Ups and Business

When you start a businessintellectual property protection should be a primary part of your start-up business plan.  What intellectually property (IP) has your business developed?  Why should you protect it? And, more importantly, how do you go about protecting the various types of intellectual property that your business owns?  Every business is different and will have different intellectual property considerations, so it’s important to develop a strategy on how your business intends to protect its unique inventions, innovations, and information. It is important to remember that your trade name, ideas,  concepts and customer lists are important assets of your business — assets that need protection.

 

What is your intellectual property?

Intellectual property refers to creative and innovative inventions, marks, designs, or works of authorship that you or your business independently created.  Ask yourself this question, “If you gave this product, information, or design away, could it hinder or prevent you from competing in your industry’s market; would it prevent or impact your profitability?” If the answer is yes, then it is more than likely some form of intellectual property.

 

There are several different types of intellectual property that your business should consider when taking an inventory of its IP for business planning purposes, including: (i)patents, or new or improved inventions, including products and processes; (ii)trademarks, or logos, brands, and designs; (iii) copyrights, or unique works of authorship, including software, articles, books, brochures, artwork, music, etc.; and (iv)trade secrets, or formulas, patterns, compilations used in a business to gain an economic or commercial edge over competitors.

 

In the early stages of your business plan, you should take an inventory of what types of intellectual property that your company owns and which intellectual property is worth protecting.  In other words, examine your business to see what might be eligible for intellectual property protection, including patent, trademark, copyright or trade secret protection, and determine the value that these inventions, innovations, or information provide to your business.  The state and federal protections afforded to intellectual property owners are designed to reward your creativity and provide you with an economic or commercial benefit, so take advantage of these protections.

 

Why should you protect your intellectual property?

Your intellectual property is an asset of your company just like your office, or your bank account.  In fact, depending on the size of your company, and the importance or value of the intellectual property, you can easily include your IP as an asset value on your corporate balance sheet.  Your intellectual property distinguishes you and your product or services from those of your competitors and their products and services.  Just like any other corporate asset, you need to safeguard your intellectual property.  If you fail to adequately protect and police your intellectual property, your competitors, and even worse, your own employees or contractors, can study, steal, and improve upon your product or service and run you right out of the market.

 

Also, social media has exponentially increased the speed of informational posting and exchanges.   This is important for a number of reasons – one, the simplicity of these social media outlets allows you to quickly and easily put information out there that you may have failed to adequately protect that is accessible to consumers, clients, and competitors; and two, a competitor can just as easily steal, improve, and disseminate the information, which could seriously impact the economic benefit of the intellectual property to your business.

 

Additionally, registration is sometimes a requirement for pursuing a legal remedy (e.g., copyrights), so it is extremely important to register early.  And finally, another reason why you should invest now in your IP’s adequate protections is because a lawsuit later will be far more costly than the application and registration fees and the attorneys’ fees for consultation and filing.

 

How do you protect your intellectual property?

It is extremely important to consider and build intellectual property concerns into your business plan. You should educate yourself and your team on the basics of trademarks, copyrights, patents, and trade secrets, so at the very least, you know when something has been created that has the potential to be afforded protection.  Next, you will want to register your IP, either at the state or federal level, depending on the level of protection you desire.  Because of the unique nature of your business, and because the various types of intellectual property are protected in different ways through various registration processes, it is good idea to at least consult with an intellectual property attorney who is familiar with start-up businesses and familiar with your industry.  An attorney can help you file the appropriate state or federal registration, and often such tasks can be completed on flat or capped fees.  They can also help you protect your IP while registration is pending.

You should also establish corporate policies regulating ownership of your business’s new and existing intellectual property.  Often times, it’s not a competitor stealing a business’s IP; it’s a former employee, independent contractor, or partner who undermines the business. Have your employees and contractors execute adequate protection documentation, including well-drafted non-disclosure and confidentiality agreements, employment agreements, independent contractor agreements, etc.

Finally, once you have registered your IP, you should actively police it.  Collaborate with your clients, vendors, merchants, and anybody else who helps you get your product or service into the stream of commerce and keep your eyes open for illegal duplication of your product and/or services.  It is the owner’s responsibility to police its own intellectual property and to insist on legal compliance of the respective laws, rules, and regulations when you find someone infringing upon your IP rights.

 

Florida Legislature Passes New Revised Limited Liability Company Act – Important Reading for Members and Managers of LLCs

Intro

On May 3, 2013, the Florida House of Representatives unanimously passed the new Florida Revised Limited Liability Company Act (the “New Florida LLC Act”).  The Florida Senate unanimously passed a companion bill a week earlier.  Governor Scott approved the bill without issue or opposition on June 14, 2013.  Since LLCs are the most common form of business in Florida, this article is important reading for all business owners, especially owners seeking to protect their LLC assets and personal assets as soon as 2014. The New LLC Act will be codified as Chapter 605 of the Florida Statutes and will govern limited liability companies (“LLCs”) within the state of Florida.  The New Florida LLC Act is materially different, in both form and substance, than the Existing Florida Revised Limited Liability Company Act (the “Existing Florida LLC Act”), which is codified in Chapter 608 of the Florida Statutes.  If you or your company is an existing Member or Manager of a Florida LLC, or if you plan to become one in the near future, it is extremely important to understand the New Florida LLC Act and how it may impact your existing and future operating agreements and other governance documents.   The summary below is not a comprehensive review of the new LLC Act and is not intended to replace the advice of an attorney, but rather is designed to help you assess your own LLCs and potential need to take action.

When will the New Florida LLC Act become effective?

 The New Florida LLC Act becomes effective on January 1, 2014 for all LLCs formed in Florida on or after January 1, 2014.  For all LLCs in existence prior to January 1, 2014, the New Florida LLC Act will not become effective until January 1, 2015; however, the members of an LLC may elect to have the New Florida LLC Act become effective as early as January 1, 2014. To do so, the governing documents of the LLC will need to be amended.

How will the New Florida LLC Act impact my LLC?

 The New Florida LLC Act, like the Existing Florida LLC Act, and like most business organization statutes, is a default statute, which means that it provides a set of standard rules governing LLCs and how they are organized, how they operate, and how they are governed.  These standard rules may be modified, with limited exceptions, through specific language contained in either the Articles of Organization or the LLC’s operating or management agreement.  Like all LLC statutes, the New Florida LLC Act specifically prohibits the LLC from including language that modifies or supersedes certain statutory provisions (these are often referred to as “non-waivable provisions”).  This is significant because the New Florida LLC Act expanded the number of provisions which are now,  non-waivable and may not be altered by agreement of the members.

What changes were made in the New Florida LLC Act?

Expanded Non-Waivable Provisions.  The New Florida LLC Act has clarified that an LLC’s operating agreement may not remove certain rights, obligations and authority granted by the Act. Some of the provisions which an operating agreement may not change include:

  1.  The ability of the LLC to sue and be sued in its own name
  2. The right of a member to maintain a direct cause of action against the LLC, another member, or a manager in order to enforce such member’s rights and otherwise protect such member’s interest
  3. The right of a member to maintain a derivative action
  4. The right of an LLC to refuse to relieve persons, including members and managers, from liability if such persons acted in bad faith or committed willful, or intentional misconduct or a knowing violation of the law
  5. A Member’s or Manager’s duty of care, duty of loyalty, or obligation of good faith and fair dealing The  power of a member to dissociate from the LLC
  6. Statutory requirements with respect to the  contents of a plan of merger, plan of interest exchange, plan of conversion, or plan of domestication, plan of dissolution, articles of organization, statutory agents and other similar provisions
  7. The applicable governing law of the Florida LLC

Managing Member Eliminated.  Under the Existing LLC Act, there are three potential management options:  (1) Member managed, (2) Manager managed, and (3) Managing Member managed.  The New Florida LLC Act has effectively eliminated the concept of Managing Member managed.  It is possible that your operating agreement may need to be amended in order to avoid confusion, unintended results, and unintended personal liabilities, and to make very clear which of the remaining options you intend to use for your LLC.  For example:  once the New Florida LLC Act becomes effective, for those LLCs that are Managing Member managed, the Managing Member may no longer be able to act alone and may require all authorized actions to be subject to a member vote in accordance with the operating agreement.  In order to avoid an unintended result, you should revise your operating agreement and governance documents to reflect the intent of the members.

New Statement of Authority.

The New Florida LLC Act allows an LLC to file a statement of authority with the Florida Department of State as a way of providing constructive notice to third parties regarding persons authorized to act on behalf of the LLC.  The Statement of Authority will be effective for five years from the last amended or filed Statement of Authority, unless terminated earlier in accordance with the New Florida LLC Act.  You should consult with an attorney to determine the implication of filing a Statement of Authority and whether such Statement of Authority would be beneficial for your LLC.

Other Changes.

  •  Non-US entities are now permitted to domesticate as a Florida LLC
  • Non-economic members (members that don’t or are not obligated to contribute) are now permitted
  • The new Act includes specific service of process rules for LLCs

What should I do with my existing operating agreement?  Moving forward, how will my operating agreements be different?

If you or your company are a member or manager of an existing LLC, or are planning to enter into a new LLC, you need to understand the New Florida LLC Act and all the changes that were recently made.  At minimum, you should review your operating agreement with a qualified business attorney. LLC Agreements need to reflect how the members desire to operate the business. An experienced and practical business attorney will help you navigate the new Florida LLC Act in a way to help you amend your operating agreement to be consistent with your intent and operations.

The Walk Law Firm is available to review your operating agreement and help you understand the impact the New Florida LLC Act will have on your Florida entity. Operating reviews can be handled on a Flat Fee or Fixed Fee basis.   As experienced Florida business and commercial law attorneys, we have studied the New Florida LLC Act and can work with you to revise, amend, restate and draft new provisions for your LLC management and operating agreements eliminating unintended confusion or results.

 

Five Questions to Ask When Hiring a Lawyer for Your Business

As a General Counsel, I spent a significant amount of time researching and interviewing attorneys and other professionals to represent my company’s interest in litigation and business negotiations. The selection of counsel is a significant investment for a business and is more than a cost. As a matter of fact, selecting the wrong counsel or failing to engage counsel may be the most costly decision a business may ever make.

Business lawyers are not a dime a dozen and all lawyers are not created equally. Experience in business and with specific transactions helps clients set strategy and successfully navigate the most difficult transactions from financing arrangements to large acquisitions of property and negotiations with key employees and contractors. Often, business lawyers are sounding boards to business owners contemplating  confidential business transactions.

With the advent of the internet, it is easy to find lawyers and there are plenty of bidding sites like Elance.com and Guru.com where you can get a flat fee or a cheap quote. As tempting as it is to hire the cheapest lawyer, I strongly suggest that business owners take the time to find the best lawyer for the situation, avoiding what might be a costly mistake. So here are 5* questions I always ask when I engage counsel for business matters:

1. Who at the law firm will handle my work?

  • If it is a team, who will be on the team?
  • Who will be the lead and my contact?
  • How was the team selected?

2. What is [each working attorney’s ] experience in handling matters like the one that I have described?

  • Has this attorney ever handled this type of matter before?
  • Has the lead attorney ever been the lead in a matter like this before?

3. What is the attorney’s and firm’s workload and ability to handle the work in my time-frame?

  • Any time off or vacations planned?
  • Is the lead attorney accessible?
  • How will communications work? Email or Telephone? In Person Meetings?
  • How often should I expect to receive a status report?

4. What does the attorney anticipate the process to be?

  • What outcomes might I expect or should I consider?
  • What are the issues are concerning?
  • Make sure you understand the terms the lawyer uses and do not be afraid to stop a lawyer and ask what something means!

5. Billing and Fees:

  • How does the firm/attorney charge?
  • Can the firm provide a detailed invoice no less often than monthly for my review?
  • How can the firm and I positively or negatively impact fees?

As you can see, fees and costs are last, but not forgotten. It is important to understand that an inexperienced attorney can consume excessive time researching a matter just like a disorganized client can consume excessive amounts of attorney time just to get information gathered — both situations can significantly increase legal cost.

I have found that for some matters, an hour of a very experienced, albeit pricey, lawyer’s time is often more valuable than ten hours of the time of an attorney who is a newcomer to the topic. When I expect the transaction or litigation to have big rewards or expose my company to significant risk, I choose experience over hourly rate every time.

*By way of disclaimer, I usually ask more than 5 questions, I always do plenty of research,  and I also ask business friends and other professionals I trust for referrals to appropriate business lawyers. My five questions are in addition to references and research.

 

 

When is the Best Time to Call Your Business Lawyer — Before You Make a Costly Mistake

In this day and age of lean budgets and concerns about return on investment, I find that many clients tend to shy away from calling legal counsel until the issue at hand has escalated to an uncontrollable level. I actually understand that, because, like my clients, I am a small business owner, with a limited budget and limited resources. I find myself watching every dollar and carefully assessing the return on my investment before clicking on my PayPal or writing a check for clicks and views, plaques and, most recently, the expense of being listed as a Top-Rate Lawyer in Tampa.  I even assess the return on legal research systems and online databases.

So how does spending to be listed as a Top-Rated Lawyer in Tampa compare with spending money on lawyers you may ask? It all comes down to return on investment. I am asked to sponsor groups, which I often do. I am asked to speak and mentor, which I gladly do, primarily for free. Lexis, WestLaw, bar associations and mediator organizations have pay-to-use and pay-to-list publications and systems.  The return on investment is fairly easy to see since my business comes to me by referrals and word of mouth, a little from the internet and mostly from reputation. I also spend some money with marketing firms, accountants, insurance, training and education and other counseling-like resources to gain guidance and to make sure that I am staying on top of  my game. The mostly costly decision I make each day about my business is the one which costs me a client or causes me to have liability for failure to deliver top quality legal services.

So how does that equate to the best time to call a business lawyer? It is before you make a decision that could cost you a sale or client or would create an undue liability for failure to deliver, breach of contract or violations of laws. For my clients, that means thinking about protecting intellectual property, providing standard or customized contracts that customers and suppliers are willing to sign, but still protect business interests, having important agreements drafted or reviewed and compliance with the laws, especially as it relates to employees and the environment so that the business is not shut down. At the Walk Law Firm, we help clients develop strategies for financing and introduce them to concepts and ideas that may be less familiar but ultimately are needed to successfully run a business. Our goal is to provide the legal counsel clients need while making sure they receive a good return on investment.

In the last few weeks, we have helped clients mediate and settle a wrongful discharge claim, resolve preference actions, navigate loan modifications  and handle a variety of after-the-fact situations that might have been avoided if we had a short conversation before a decision was made. This month, I have also found financing for a client who did thought Bankruptcy was the only option because we talked early and developed a strategic plan. After the fact, the legal fees plus the cost of settlement are often far greater than what one might anticipate in an early resolution or for a short conversation to set strategy.

For me, the best time to to call a business lawyer, is when you need to make tough decisions or when you are considering future growth and divestment strategies.  Consider a small retainer relationship with your lawyers and ask to have it cover periodic phone calls and questions. We do it for our clients so that clients can call whenever they need a little bit of legal counsel or advice before making a decision which could lead to a costly mistake.

To learn more, please visit our website at WWW. WalkLawFirm.com

 

Attorney Rochelle Friedman Walk has Achieved the AV Preeminent® Rating – the Highest Possible Rating from Martindale-Hubbell®.

NEWS:    In the world of lawyers, there are many honors and opportunities to buy plaques and spend money to bolster one’s career, but in my book, only some honors worthy of sharing. I have recently learned that I was named a Top Lawyer in Tampa Bay for 2012 and again for 2013 by Law.com, the National Law Journal and some other related publications. This honor stems from my AV – Preeminent Rating, which I achieved and have maintained for more than 10 years. It truly is an honor to be rated by other attorneys in the top category for both ethical standards and legal ability. Some details of the honor:

Rochelle Friedman Walk, a lawyer and mediator based in Tampa, FL whose primary areas of practice are Business and Commercial Law and Alternative Dispute Resolution, has earned the AV Preeminent® rating from Martindale-Hubbell®

“Tampa, FL, March 4, 2013 – Martindale-Hubbell, a division of LexisNexis®, has confirmed that attorney Rochelle Friedman Walk still maintains the AV Preeminent Rating, Martindale-Hubbell’s highest possible rating for both ethical standards and legal ability, even after first achieving this rating in 2002,” according to the press release I received today.

The Martindale-Hubbell AV Preeminent® rating was started more than 130 years ago and is used by attorneys while searching for their own expert attorneys. With websites and social media, anyone can determine a lawyer’s rating by looking  it up on Lawyers.com or martindale.com. The Martindale-Hubbell® AV Preeminent® rating is the highest possible rating for an attorney for both ethical standards and legal ability. This rating represents the pinnacle of professional excellence. It is achieved only after an attorney has been reviewed and recommended by their peers – members of the bar and the judiciary.

The Walk Law Firm provides general counsel and mediation services to a diverse array of local, national and even international clients with particular focus on providing practical business counsel and alternative dispute resolution for businesses with small or nonexistent legal departments. I initially launched the firm to better serve business and mediation clients. Our focus is to assist businesses and entrepreneurs achieve their goals in a cost-effective and expedient manner. Our lean cost structure is designed to keep the burden of significant overhead costs low.

I am also a Florida Supreme Court certified Circuit Civil and Appellate Mediator, serve on the FINRA, Bankruptcy Court and Middle District mediation panels, handling business and financial meditations for parties wanting an experienced executive and lawyer mediate their matters.

To find out more or to contact Rochelle Friedman Walk of Tampa, FL, call 813-999-0199, or visit www.WalkLawFirm.com.

As a result of this honor, American Registry LLC, has added Rochelle Friedman Walk to The Registry™ of Business and Professional Excellence. For more information, search The Registry™ at http://www.americanregistry.com.

I am very proud that I have achieved the AV Preeminent® Rating – the highest possible rating from Martindale-Hubbell®.