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Do I REALLY Need An Attorney?

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In the past, in order to accomplish tasks such as drafting a contract or filing a trademark application necessitated the use of an attorney. The information, education, and know-how required to gain and execute these skills were only obtainable by attending law school or spending hours pouring over legal texts in a library. Today, however, the internet is at your fingertips almost anywhere, and massive amounts of information lie waiting to be discovered with a few keystrokes or swipes of the finger. Since knowledge is so readily available in the digital age, you definitely have wondered whether you needed to hire a professional for a certain task, including legal work.

With the public becoming more and more informed, less people people call skilled laborers, like plumbers or electricians, to make simple repairs in their home. I often take these tasks upon myself at home. For example, the condo my wife, Ashley, and I purchased came with a new washer and dryer. After testing both sets (which meant moving and installing each set several times), we decided to keep the newer set and sell the older one. However, on a particularly heavy laundry day, the old dryer stopped working. I did some research and discovered the source of the problem, a $4 thermal fuse that had blown. I contacted some repair services to gauge the cost. Much to my dismay, the repair would be a hefty $250. So I set off on my quest to repair the dryer on my own, because why pay several hundred dollars when I could buy the $4 part and do it myself. To make a long story short, I fought with the thing for several weekends (mostly with ONE pesky screw that refused to loosen) but ultimately prevailed in bringing the machine back to life. We were able to quickly sell the set and finally clear them from our enclosed porch. This is only one of the many projects of home ownership that we decided to DIY instead of hiring; you will probably get to read some of those stories later as well.

electrician

While we can find tutorials and instructions online for many a project or repair, it is also important to know your limits. Case in point: when we moved in, neither of the bedrooms had ceiling lights/fans, but we, OK...I, wanted them. No more desk fan in the bedroom. One problem. Even though someone had drilled the holes to mount a ceiling fan, no wiring had been run. I mounted a new chandelier in the dining room so I know how to hook up a fan and light, but there was no way I was going to attempt running new wiring and tying it into the existing electrical wiring in the condo. This is where I called a professional electrician to  handle running the new wiring and installing the ceiling fans. I have no regrets on the money that we spent to have a professional do the installation. I watched and helped (mainly by not being in his way) and learned that he had to do several things I had not even considered (like drilling holes through ceiling slats for the wires).

Now, I probably could have spent hours online learning how to do this myself, bought all the necessary tools, and given it a shot. Things would have gone one of two ways: 1) everything goes as smoothly as possible for a beginner, and the fans work; or  2) one of countless things goes wrong, like encountering those unknown problems or messing up the electrical wiring and/or circuit breaker. In the best case scenario, I save a few bucks, but I have also spent (wasted?) a large amount of time to complete the project. In every other scenario, though, what started out as a money saver ends up not only wasting time but also probably costing more money than it would have cost to hire a professional in the first place.

The same thing applies to legal problems. If you look in the right places, you will find legal information applicable to your needs. You might find that you can pay low fees to services such as LEGALZOOM or ROCKET LAWYER to give you a basic walk-through and/or tools/templates to meet your needs. You may even get lucky and find free templates. However, the ultimate question is "should you?" The consequences may not be as apparent as damaging the electrical wiring in your house, but the effects of conducting legal affairs on your own can be just as devastating for your business or career. Just like I knew when I needed to call an electrician to run new wiring, you need to know when to call an attorney. 

Let's use filing a trademark as an example. You started a company and want to protect the name. As a startup company attempting to get traction, you are strapped for cash and decide to file the trademark yourself in order to save money. You do some research on how filing works and follow the instructions on the USPTO website. Just like my hypothetical electrical wire running above, there are many outcomes that can happen. You could be extremely fortunate and have your trademark registered with no problems, or your application process is a fiasco. Many unforeseen things can happen throughout the application process (e.g. USPTO asks you to disclaim a portion of the name; the examiner believes your mark is merely descriptive; or worse, another party files an opposition to your mark; etc.); not all of them are necessarily a death-knell for your mark, but you must have the expertise to deal with these unexpected developments.

Let's explore the opposition scenario. Essentially, a trademark opposition is miniature trial where a third party is telling the USPTO to not register your mark because they believe it would cause confusion with their own. This opposition proceeding is complete with discovery, evidentiary filings, and written briefs by both parties to the Trademark Trial and Appeal Board (TTAB). If you chose to file the application on your own, you must either study fast and hard to learn how to handle the opposition yourself because TTAB requires that you follow all formal guidelines, quickly find an attorney to clean up the mess, or give up on your trademark. If you choose to hire an attorney, you do not have the luxury of shopping around to find the right attorney at a price you can afford, so you take what you can get. Even if you do find an attorney, you may still end up not successfully defending your mark. According to recent data, 5,000 - 6,000 oppositions are filed each year. Of the approximately 10,000 actions (including examiner actions), only less than 600 of these actions actually reach the final "on the merits" hearings. If your case actually reaches the merits, it can be over a year before this occurs. A trademark opposition is certainly a worst-case scenario, but it is also preventable. That is exactly why you need an experienced professional doing due diligence for your company at the early stages. If you had hired an attorney from the beginning, they would have been able to counsel you on your mark and warn you of potential risks with your chosen mark.

This is just one example of mistake that can occur when you do not use a legal professional to handle matters for you. A mistake such as this not only costs you money to fix the problem, but it can also cost you time (and we all know that "time is money"). Your time, to find and meet with attorneys to solve the new problem, as well as potential time for your company in the market. That lost time can impact your business in many ways; perhaps a competitor comes into the market and gets a leg up, or someone you were working with takes advantage of something you did not see in a contract. Whatever occurs, though, can negatively impact your business.  

 Goings Legal can provide this value to you and your company. We are committed to getting things right the first time. Give us a call or fill out our contact form to let us know what your needs are, and we will work to protect what you create.

Matthew Goings