Monday, June 27, 2011

Legal Tools for Entrepreneurs

     Recently the Small Business Administration selected lawyer Nina Kaufman  as its Women in Business Champion of the Year, for the region including NY and New Jersey. For over 20 years Nina has created a unique niche for herself both as a legal advisor to and advocate of women’s businesses. She identifies her professional mission as “demystifying legal mumbo jumbo” for small entrepreneurs so they won’t be intimidated.  A client describes Nina’s mission simply as “preventing small companies from crashing and burning.” 
     With an M.A. from the London School of Economics and a law degree from Boston University, Nina has practiced law for about twenty years but admits her first unsuccessful foray was with a partner who left her holding a significant amount of debt.  “I still have war wounds,” she admits, “but I now view them as a badge of honor, because I have learned to move forward on my own.”
     Because as a sole practitioner, she is limited by the number of hours in her work day, Nina has borrowed a page from the entrepreneurs she counsels. She extends her reach through regularly creating and marketing   “information products “—audio or digital courses and resources on basic issues facing small businesses, available on her website:  The courses, which range in price from $27 to $197, cover topics such as The Entrepreneur’s PreNup on how to choose business partners wisely,   “How to Train Your Clients to Pay You,” and “Common Contract Pitfalls.”  A prolific writer, Nina also has her own blog and a weekly e-zine called Lex Appeal;  she frequently speaks and offers workshops to promote women entrepreneurs.
  Many clients purchase these info products to bone up on basic legal facts before they engage Nina directly.  Dawn Fotopulos, a consultant who runs a website called, providing training videos for small business owners, says “Nina’s reasonably priced courses give me the background I need to ask her the right questions when we talk.”  She adds, “while  Nina is a brilliant lawyer, who works with me to develop terms when I negotiate with clients or subcontractors, she also openly tells me when I don’t need her to solve an issue and generously refers me to  more reasonably priced resources.” Dawn adds, “Entrepreneurs often work 18-hour days; they are not living lush lives; every penny they make they usually pour back into their businesses.  Nina’s technique is to become a true collaborator to help you make your business viable.”
    One popular arrangement Nina Kaufman offers entrepreneurs is a “flat fee” which basically asks clients to deposit an agreed upon sum in an escrow account which they can draw down as needed. One entrepreneur who welcomes this arrangement is Lena West, founder of xynoMedia which advises small business on the strategic use of social media.  Lena also uses Nina’s digital products because “you can’t’ get this level of experienced counsel in such a clear format anywhere” and then calls for a one on one session if she needs direct contact.  Lena appreciates   that   Nina is “always willing to hear you out and never steam rolls you into a position. She’s not court- hungry and tries to keep her clients away from litigation.” On the other hand, “she knows her stuff and can be tough.  When a client expanded the scope of services by $30,000 but balked at paying the additional costs, Nina negotiated the additional payments within a couple of weeks.”
     What are some mistakes that good legal advice helps small entrepreneurs avoid?   Here are some problems that top Nina’s list:
  • Choosing  business structure that can  inhibit your company’s growth
  • Not protecting  valuable intellectual property  
  •  Rushing into deals or partnerships without seeking out advisors or negotiating realistic terms
  • Having too many slow- or no- paying clients on the books
  • Frequent disputes with clients, partners, and contractors

     One entrepreneur, Kathy  Canfield Shepard who founded  Canfield Design Studios in New York City to help arts groups with marketing and website services, has worked with Nina since she incorporated in 2001. Since then, Kathy, a professional French horn player,  admits, “Nina has gotten me out of quite a few jams.  But she always does it very diplomatically so that it’s a win-win every time for both sides. Nina also refers me to her network for other services, such as accounting; she even taught me how to get copyrighted by myself to save on legal bills.”
     Another client, Rosemary Bova, founder of BovaEnterprises which provides executive advisory services and organizational analyses for such clients as American Express, GE, and Langone NYU Medical Center has worked with Nina for twelve years. What she appreciates is that Nina  “teaches her clients how to use her services effectively. Rosemary keeps Nina’s   “inexpensive and informative” booklets on her shelf and then calls her if she wants to supplement that advice.  “Often,” Rosemary says, “attorneys tell you how they think you should handle a situation. Nina asks you how you want to be represented. She listens carefully, but then tells you if you are asking too much.”
     Maybe one secret to Nina Kaufman’s widely praised people skills and client satisfaction lies in one of her sidelines; she has performed as a stand-up comedian at downtown New York clubs. Her rationale:  by integrating humor into her talking points, she can help make issues come alive so that her clients can enjoy learning the process. Longtime client  Rosemary Bova  thinks her  comic talents just make  Nina  an integrated professional;  by bringing together the many facets of herself --legal, marketing, social media, and publishing skills, along with her warmth and wry humor,  she has carved out  a new vein in the legal mine.”


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