Lawyers vs. Apps: A Grudge Match To The Death

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I like to give away lots of free legal information on this blog because I think it's important for artists to have a basic understanding about how the law interacts with them. I was once in your shoes. I've had my ideas stolen, my copyrights compromised, and been in situations where a little legal knowledge could have saved me from a jam or two. At the same time, you can't cut lawyers entirely out of the equation simply because you possess that knowledge. Legal information without analysis is just raw data. It can't give you advice or insight. It can't examine your specific situation and provide you with synthesized options based on that data (i.e. just because you know the fair use factors doesn't mean you know how to apply them). No two situations are the same and everyone's needs will differ depending on a variety of unforeseeable factors. Only a properly trained lawyer familiar with your circumstances will be able to navigate that minefield.

Such was my mindset when I wrote this review of Shake last Monday, a new app that allows users to generate contracts right on their iPhones without the need for a lawyer. I wrote that the app had promise primarily because it does something I support: bring clarity to the law. My exact words were, "Shake makes [contracts] easy to make, easy to read and best of all, short. By doing this, it incentivizes people to use contracts in their work, and anything  that gets artists thinking about their work from a legal perspective is a good thing." But the app had several larger issues that I found troubling; namely, the lack of flexibility provided by stock contracts and the ambiguous usage of the term "work made for hire" in the freelancer contracts.

Three days after my review posted, I found myself on the phone with Vinay Jain, the app's chief legal officer, talking about my concerns. The call was very productive and when I hung up 45 minutes later, the following was clear to me:

  1. Vinay was open-minded, thoughtful, and took my concerns seriously. Regardless of what he does with my input about the "work for hire" issue, I felt heard.
  2. He puts a lot of time and energy into researching contract law and making sure that the intricacies of different state laws are addressed in each of the agreements provided by Shake.
  3. The Shake team is committed to democratizing the legal transaction process by making it less intimidating.

In other words, I came away from the call with my reservations addressed and feeling deeply impressed by what the Shake team was trying to accomplish and the manner in which they were trying to accomplish it. The app certainly isn't perfect (what app is, frankly?), but there's room for growth, and it's pretty clear that growth will occur over the coming weeks and months. More important to me, Vinay assured me that the team behind Shake agree that their app cannot and should not be a replacement for lawyers. Per the app's FAQ page"We designed Shake to let you quickly record agreements for everyday transactions that you otherwise might do with a verbal 'handshake' agreement... Shake isn’t for complex or high-stakes transactions. Are you selling your company? Shake is not for that. You should talk with a lawyer. Are you selling your used computer on Craigslist or hiring a freelance designer for a basic job? Shake is perfect for either of those."

My hope is that if you use Shake, you use it as intended - to make quick and easy contracts where you otherwise wouldn't - not as an excuse to get out of hiring a lawyer just because of inertia or disdain (lawyers aren't very well liked in this country, in case you didn't know). A good lawyer isn't a black hole for your money. A good lawyer protects and elevates you. The people behind Shake seem to understand that, so I will support them.

Legally Binding Contracts? There's An App For That

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The future is now, and it's filled with apps that render most learned professions obsolete. On the docket for today: an app that replaces lawyers.  Hooray?

Shake is an app for your iPhone that allows you to "[c]reate, sign, and send legally binding agreements in seconds, all from your phone." The app contains a number of stock agreements, such as non-disclosures, buy and sells, personal loans, and freelancer contracts, with more types of agreements getting added in the near future. The app is simple to use as well. You answer several questions and then the app generates your contract, which both parties can sign right on the phone. Voila! Legally binding contracts without ever wasting a sheet of paper or paying for legal services!

A friend told me he thought this was really sketchy [although the signatures are digital, they are still legally binding], and several lawyer colleagues were horrified by the app. Being a lawyer myself, I understand why. No one wants to invest time and resources to learn a trade only to have that trade rendered obsolete by technology. Even if the technology is very pretty.

I spent a few days playing with Shake to see if my friend and colleagues were right, and despite some big problems with the app (see below), I've decided that I'm okay with it. Kind of. Shake does one thing really right, and for that reason, I can't hate it: contracts are hard; they're usually long and often boring to read and write. Shake makes them easy to make, easy to read and best of all, short. By doing this, it incentivizes people to use contracts in their work, and anything  that gets artists thinking about their work from a legal perspective is a good thing.

But there are several big caveats that prevent me from recommending the app outright.

  1. Stock contracts offer no flexibility in their terms and are not tailored to the specific circumstances of your transaction. While this may not be a big deal for some of you, I strongly advise caution. Your work is unique to you, and only you know the terms that will make the transaction worthwhile.  Stock contracts, by their nature, cannot give you the flexibility to ensure that your best interests are being served.
  2. Contract law isn't regulated by statute at the federal level, like trademark or copyright.  Contract law varies from state to state, and what may be legally permissible in one state may not be in another.
  3. When you use language you didn’t draft yourself or authorize a lawyer to draft for you, you could end up consigning yourself to something in your own contract that you don't intend. For example, in Shake's stock freelancer agreement, it states that the freelancer's work is a "work for hire."  This is wrong because in most cases, a freelancer's work is only considered a "work for hire" in a very limited number of circumstances. To confuse matters, the agreement later uses language that directly contradicts what a "work for hire" actually is.  These types of drafting issues can certainly be fixed by a software update, but right now, the contract is  ambiguous and confusing at best, and unenforceable at worst.

If the choice is between using Shake or nothing, I'd tell you to use Shake every day of the week and twice on Sundays. But if you want a contract done right and in a way that serves your legal interest, draft it yourself or, even better, hire a lawyer.