If you're starting (or thinking of starting) a sharing economy company, there's a very good chance you'll wonder at some point: "Is this actually legal?"
In many cases, the answer -- technically speaking -- will be no. In other cases, the answer will be, "Yes, it's legal, but it's still crazy risky."
What do you, the excited upstart entrepreneur, do at this point?
If you went with three, read on.
In a common law system like the United States, you can't just go to a book and look up "the rules." (Sure, there are statutes, but those statutes have often been interpreted by courts in such wacky ways that you can't tell what they mean by reading them.) Instead, we're bound by "precedent," which is basically all the old cases for the last 200+ years. Your novel idea might be governed by a dusty opinion from 1824. Fun!
Given that the law doesn't keep up with technological and social change (how could it, when cases drag on for years and you can start the next big thing in a few months), your lawyer is stuck analogizing to past precedents to figure out what you can safely/legally do.
So, when you get "I don't know" or "I need more information" as an answer, chances are good your lawyer isn't trying to run up the bill. She probably needs some very specific factual information to understand whether your proposal falls into the "okay" or "not okay" bucket. The more quickly you provide that information, the faster everyone can move on with their lives.
Now, of course there are exceptions (and I'd encourage you to seek out those exceptions), but there aren't too many people who are equally comfortable talking about law and discussing programming or UI design. These are all very specialized languages, and it's hard to be fully fluent in more than one.
It's also a rare lawyer who's fully conversant in the sharing economy, just because things are developing so rapidly.
So, what can you do to help your lawyer get up to speed?
Put these two personalities together and there are bound to be some disagreements.
As we discussed above, your lawyer probably isn't trying to be difficult when he points out every possible legal risk of your new idea. That's his job.
But, your job is to weigh the risks and decide when it's worth the risk to move forward. Did AirBnB attempt to comply with lodging laws in every city they operate in before launching? No, of course not. It would have been totally impractical and the business never would have gotten off the ground.
When you're pushing the envelope on what society is used to, and fundamentally rethinking long-standing ideas about property ownership, it's inevitable that there will be turbulence. Be smart about the risks you take, of course, but you'll often be in uncharted waters.
It's okay to listen to your lawyer, understand the issues, and decide you disagree with the advice you're getting.
Just make sure you're doing so with your eyes open. Best of luck!
Image by juliaf.