Even for start-ups and other small businesses, legal protection is important. Business owners must maintain certain official documents to protect their interests and those of the company and the shareholders. These include but are not limited to the following:

  • Bylaws define the company's governance structure and establish other administrative details, such as voting procedures and the length of time each member will serve on the board of directors. These are legally required by most states.
  • Meeting minutes are the official account of what happened at formal corporate meetings, including actions taken and decisions made. These documents should be fairly detailed and include information about the type of meeting, when and where it was held, who was in attendance, and who voted and abstained in actions and decisions that took place.
  • The operating agreement is used by limited liability companies in place of bylaws. While this document is not legally required, it is useful for LLCs that have more than one member. This document outlines all the business's administrative and financial functions, such as how profits and losses are distributed and how members can enter and leave the company.
  • A non-disclosure agreement (NDA) protects company information that needs to remain private. This includes but is not limited to the financial records, customer list, and intellectual property. The NDA creates a confidential relationship with any employees and contractors you hire as well as with any other businesses with whom you develop a partnership.
  • An employee agreement establishes the expectations and obligations of both the company and an employee to prevent disputes. This can be useful as a tool to retain new hires, prevent disclosure, or keep them from working for a competing firm.
  • A business plan is needed if you ever plan to sell your business and seek financing. It should provide a detailed roadmap for your company's goals and plans to meet them.
  • A memorandum of understanding is used to document agreements with partners, suppliers, and other stakeholders. This allows you to establish the terms of a relationship or project in a document that is not legally binding.
  • Online terms of use for your website limit your liability for content errors, provide guidelines for visitors, and establish a privacy policy if you collect email addresses or other information.
  • Intellectual property assignment agreement establishes ownership of your company's intellectual property. These key assets add value to your business, which may attract venture capitalists and other investors.

If you're completing legally binding forms, first make sure you have the most current version of the document. Read the entire form and included directions so that you understand what it's about before you fill it out.

For paper forms, write clearly and legibly in blue or black ink. Online forms are usually more convenient when available.

Fill out legal forms using your complete legal name, mailing address, and valid e-mail address and telephone number. You can use another address where you receive mail to keep your home address private. If you move, you should file a change of address with the court.

If the form asks for the name of your attorney or says "attorney for," include the full name of your attorney. If you do not have one, write "self-represented" or "in proper person."

Always provide accurate, comprehensive information. Write N/A if a form question does not apply to you. Write unknown if you do not know the answer. Avoid leaving form questions blank.

Include your signature wherever required in blue or black ink. Signing a form that you know includes incorrect information may constitute perjury.

Make copies of signed legal forms and file them for your records, organizing them in a folder by date. Only single-sided copies are accepted by the court.

Although fill-in-the-blank forms are sometimes sufficient, you sometimes need forms that address unique aspects of your case. Start with a sample that addresses a similar situation from your perspective, whether you're the plaintiff or defendant.

If you need help with common law documents, you can post your legal need on UpCounsel's marketplace. UpCounsel accepts only the top 5 percent of lawyers to its site. Lawyers on UpCounsel come from law schools such as Harvard Law and Yale Law and average 14 years of legal experience, including work with or on behalf of companies like Google, Menlo Ventures, and Airbnb.