Use These 9 Free Legal Templates to Protect Your Business

Industry Advice Law & Criminology

The world of law can be complicated, especially for those of us who are not trained lawyers. And yet, it is inescapable: Every single person on Earth operates within the law to some degree, whether by following the rules of the road when driving or abiding by tax law when filing taxes.

That being said, some of us work more closely with the law than others, particularly those in business. Corporate law is a wide-ranging and sprawling field—a web of rules, regulations, forms, and contracts designed to protect the corporation, its employees, its customers, and the public good.

Larger corporations are likely to have their own in-house experts to turn to for legal matters, but small to midsize businesses face a unique challenge: They don’t have extensive experience with the legal world, but they also don’t have the budget that would be required to hire a team of legal experts.

This forces many small business owners to try and navigate the law on their own, sometimes to disastrous results. For example, when preparing legal documents like contracts, various agreements, and policies, business owners often turn to legal templates downloaded off the web. Unfortunately, while these legal templates are a convenient starting point, using them incorrectly can spell trouble for a business owner.

“You get what you pay for,” says Dan Urman, director of Northeastern’s Master of Legal Studies program. “But a fancy sounding document with lots of legalese might leave a company exposed. In fact, many of these documents are intentionally archaic, in order to confuse and overwhelm the people signing them.”

With that risk in mind, we’ve aggregated a list of free templates and examples for nine of the most commonly sought-after legal documents on the web, along with some cautionary words of advice from legal experts who know firsthand where templates can go wrong. We recommend using these free resources as a starting point, but not as the finished product. You’ll still want to seek out professional legal advice and counsel before putting any of these documents to use.

Disclaimer: The templates compiled below are among the most popular available online. Our inclusion of them in this article does not constitute an endorsement or legal advice. If you need legal advice—for example, to ensure the veracity of your legal documents—please contact a licensed attorney in your state.

1. General Contract for Services

What It’s Used for:

If your business operates by providing services to another party—or if you ever receive services from another business—a general contract for services can help you establish a professional working relationship with any new customer or client you take on.

Also called an “agreement for services” or a “service contract,” these contracts are designed to achieve a number of things, including:

  • Defining your relationship with your customer/client
  • Preventing misunderstandings about the services that you will and won’t be providing
  • Creating a clear record of scope, price, and duration of services, and any other information that may need to be referenced

What to Watch Out for:

Generally speaking, the law favors specificity, especially when it comes to contracts. For that reason, business owners would be wise to be as specific as possible when drafting their contract for services.

Though things like price and duration of services are easy to clarify, a poorly defined scope can lead to issues down the road. For that reason, business owners should take every care to outline the scope of their services as thoroughly as possible—and, just as important, ensure that their client understands the breadth and limitations of that scope—before beginning work.

2. Non-Disclosure Agreements

A non-disclosure agreement, also called an NDA or a confidentiality agreement, is a legal document between two or more parties that is used to protect confidential information.

What It’s Used for:

Businesses use non-disclosure agreements in order to protect their business’s proprietary information, trade secrets, and intellectual property. These documents work by creating a legally compelling reason for confidentiality: Anyone who has signed an NDA and breaks its terms risks legal repercussions.

Companies will often require that employees, independent contractors, and business partners sign NDAs during the hiring/contracting process in order to protect their business.

What to Watch Out for:

Sometimes, in an attempt to fully protect his or her business, an owner may create a non-disclosure agreement that is overly broad. But it is important to keep in mind that in order to be enforceable, an NDA must be reasonable.

For example, courts would immediately void an NDA forcing someone to remain silent about fraudulent behavior by a company or individual, according to Urman. An overly broad non-disclosure agreement risks being voided by the courts during arbitration.

For that reason, it is generally in a business’s best interest to draft an NDA that very clearly defines the scope of confidential information, possibly going so far as to explaining why it should be protected under the agreement and how it directly pertains to your business.

3. Independent Contractor Agreements

Independent Contractor Agreements Template

These templates for independent contractor agreements contain the necessary guidance and language for hiring an independent contractor or freelance employee.

An independent contractor agreement is a document that outlines the business relationship between an organization and the independent contractor, or freelancer, that they’re hiring to perform a task.

What It’s Used for:

Organizations often hire independent contractors and freelancers to perform tasks in lieu of hiring an in-house employee, whether because it’s cheaper, because the contractor has desirable skills that have not been available in job candidates, or because the specific need does not require an in-house employee.

Whatever the case, independent contractors are not employees of the organization where they provide services. This is what makes an agreement so crucial.

An independent contractor agreement should clearly outline the terms of work that is agreed upon, including:

  • A detailed scope of work outlining the task(s) to be done
  • Payment schedules, often breaking payments into smaller amounts to be paid upon completion of various phases of work
  • A deadline for work to be done
  • If necessary, an NDA or other agreements protecting your business

What to Watch Out for:

As with the general contract for services, one of the most common issues with independent contractor agreements is a vague scope. You should be as specific as possible in outlining the expectations of your engagement with the independent contractor, both to protect your business as well as to be fair to the contractor.

It’s also important to include a section about termination conditions, which should outline the rights of all parties in terminating the agreement. This may include anything from unforeseen business developments to breach of contract or failure to pay. Though typically reserved for worst-case scenarios, this section offers an escape valve to both the organization and the contractor, and can help prevent costly litigation.

4. Terms & Conditions Notice

The terms and conditions notice is a document that outlines the terms of use of a service, including what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate use. In this case, your business’s website is the service being used.

What It’s Used for:

Most companies with a website will have a set of terms and conditions, also sometimes called “online terms of use.” These are conditions that users of your site will need to agree to before they are allowed to begin using your site, app, or service, and generally outline what activity is and isn’t allowed.

Important areas often covered by terms and conditions include:

  • Outlining membership terms
  • Detailing what constitutes “harassment” (especially important for websites that include commenting, forums, or other modes of communicating between users)
  • An explanation of behavior that is prohibited either by law or your own policies
  • An explanation of how you might restrict the activity of individuals found to break your terms and conditions

What to Watch Out for:

Because every business is unique in its own way, you should generally ignore the temptation to simply copy another business’s terms and conditions. Legal templates will cover all of the bases that are common between businesses, but only you will know whether or not the document accurately reflects the way that you do business.

5. Privacy Policy

Privacy Policy Template

These privacy policy templates include the language and guidance necessary to create a privacy policy for your website.

A privacy policy is a document that lives on a business’s website that outlines information about data collection, storage, security, and use.

What It’s Used for:

Privacy policies are similar to terms and conditions in that they’re generally required of any business that has a website that customers or potential customers interact with.

But whereas the terms and conditions outline the behavior that is acceptable and unacceptable on your site, your privacy policy is focused on issues of data and privacy. A privacy policy may include:

  • What information you collect and store (including, but not limited to, financial information and/or demographics)
  • How you use that information
  • Whether or not you share that information with third parties
  • Whether or not you make use of cookies or similar technologies
  • How users can access and control the data they share with you

What to Watch Out for:

In 2016, the European Union passed the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), a law aimed at protecting the privacy of European consumers. The regulation has a goal of increasing transparency and granting consumers greater control over the data they share with companies.

Any company or organization working with citizens of the European Union must comply with the terms of GDPR, which went into effect in May of 2018, or risk hefty penalties and fines. As GDPR is a relatively new regulation, there is no guarantee that the templates available online will be GDPR-compliant.

6. Job Offer Letter

A job offer letter is a document that makes an official offer of employment to a job candidate, which outlines important information about the role and compensation.

What It’s Used for:

When an organization decides to move ahead in hiring a job candidate, they will typically extend an official offer letter to the job candidate. This job offer letter (also called an employment offer letter, an offer letter, or an offer of employment) outlines key information about the role, including:

  • The employee’s start date
  • The name of the employee’s manager
  • Terms of payment (including salary and an explanation of weekly or biweekly pay schedule)
  • Commission, expenses, and reimbursements (if applicable)
  • A thorough outline of duties
  • Information about insurance, pension/retirement benefits, and other benefits
  • Vacation and sick time policy
  • Length of employment (whether a specific or indefinite time frame)

What to Watch Out for:

When drafting a job offer letter, unless the position is contract-based, most businesses will include an “at-will” statement, which specifies that both the employee and employer can terminate the agreement at any time and for any reason.

Urman notes that at-will agreements dominate the workforce, but “while employers can terminate employees for any reason, it cannot be a bad reason, including but not limited to employees’ race, religion, national origin or ancestry, sex, age, physical or mental disability, or veteran status. Many, but not all, states also protect employees from being fired for their sexual orientation or gender identity.”

Failure to include an at-will statement may imply that the employee will only be “terminated for cause”—i.e., for breaking a specific company policy, breaching a contract, or engaging in some other prohibited behavior.

While some companies choose to operate on a termination for-cause basis, many prefer to reserve the right to terminate at-will. If this describes you, then it’s crucial that you ensure that the template you use includes such a clause.

7. Termination Letter

A termination letter, also called a pink slip, is a document that serves as an official explanation for termination. Whether the termination is due to firing the employee, laying him or her off due to business challenges, or the employee is leaving on his or her own accord, a termination letter should be drafted for your official record.

What It’s Used for:

No matter how much you value your employee relationships, most businesses will need to deal with a termination at one point or another.

The termination letter serves as an official explanation for the termination and also outlines important key information, including:

  • Reason for termination
  • Effective date of termination (i.e., the employee’s last day)
  • An explanation of what happens to accrued, unused vacation, and sick time
  • Next steps for continuing health/dental/vision insurance and the handling of 401(k) or other retirement benefits, if you have provided them

What to Watch Out for:

Before terminating any employee, you should review their employment agreement to determine for certain whether his or her employment was at-will. If it was not, then you may be required by law to note the cause of termination. The legal template that you opt to use may or may not include a section noting cause, so if it is applicable, you will need to be sure to include such a section.

8. Trademark Cease and Desist Letter

Trademark Cease and Desist Letter Template

In the event that you suspect someone of infringing on your trademark, these trademark cease and desist letter templates provide the language and guidance you will need.

A trademark cease and desist letter is a document that is used to assert your business’s rights to a trademark, typically when you have found that another business is infringing upon it.

What It’s Used for:

Businesses use trademarks and service marks to protect the value and integrity of their brand, often filing trademarks on their business name, logo(s), and any proprietary product designs to prevent other businesses from unfairly copying or mimicking their brand.

In the case that you do find a competing company infringing on one of your trademarks, your first step would be to send them a trademark cease and desist letter. This letter serves a number of purposes, including:

  • Acting as an assertion of your legal rights to your trademark
  • Asking the recipient to stop infringing upon your rights
  • Giving the recipient a timeline before further legal action will be taken
  • Describing the consequences of failing to comply

What to Watch Out for:

The letter itself is not a legally-binding document, but merely a record that you have asserted your rights to protect your trademark.

Though your letter—and the threat of legal action—may be enough to convince the recipient to stop infringing upon your trademark, they very well may refuse to comply. It’s crucial that you have a plan of action in place for what happens in the event that the case goes to litigation.

Typical cease and desist letter templates may offer a vague sense of the repercussions of failing to comply, but it is very important that you tailor these terms to the realities of your own situation.

9. Non-Compete Agreements

A non-compete agreement is a legal document that restricts the work that a former employee can pursue after leaving your company, in order to protect your business.

What It’s Used for:

Non-compete agreements fall under a category of legal documents known as “restrictive covenants” (like non-disclosure agreements) in that they restrict the activity of your employees and business partners.

Essentially, non-compete agreements are contracts between an employer and an employee that states that the employee will not enter into competition with the employer if the employee leaves the company or is terminated. They typically include information such as:

  • A start date
  • A specified time range in which the agreement is in effect, from a number of months to a number of years
  • If applicable to your business, the specific geographical location in which the agreement covers
  • An explanation of any compensation the employee will receive for agreeing to the terms (if compensation is offered)

Because current and former employees know the intimate details about how your company operates, including any proprietary information, non-compete agreements are an important part of protecting your company.

What to Watch Out for:

It’s important to note that non-compete agreements can be treated very differently from state to state. An agreement that would be easily upheld in Arizona, for instance, may be thrown out in Connecticut due to overly-restrictive language. For that reason, it’s important that any template you use be tailored to this reality. For this reason, it’s generally recommended that a lawyer licensed in your state review the document before it’s put in use.

Another common pitfall with non-compete agreements is the inclusion of overly-restrictive terms, such as geographical locations or timeframes that make it too difficult for the employee to find future work elsewhere. While your goal is to protect your business from undue competition, you should also aim to be fair to the signee, or risk having the agreement thrown out, or limited, during litigation.

Covering Your Assets

There is nothing wrong with businesses leveraging the free or inexpensive legal templates that are available to them. But you must balance the desire to save money with the desire to protect your business.

“Most people founded their business because it had something unique to offer,” Urman says. “The templates will usually gloss over the unique product or service that you offer. Make sure that you protect whatever makes your business stand out from the rest.”

It’s for that reason that, if you use a legal template found online, it’s generally still within your best interest to also hire a legal professional to use the document before you put them to use. Sure, this will cost some money, but the price will be much lower than litigation stemming from a poorly crafted template.

Alternatively, if you find yourself regularly working with legal documents, contracts, and lawyers, earning a Master of Legal Studies (MLS) degree may help you to better understand the law and its impacts on your business.