Changing Relationships Call for New Agreements

Have you ever had wills drafted or met with your financial advisor or insurance agent, and at the end of the meeting, he or she said, “Now we need to revisit this every couple of year to make sure things haven’t changed.”?  That same approach should be followed in your other legal and business relationships.

Relationships and circumstances can change for a variety of reasons.  The law changes.  One party is faced with financial or other business hardships.  One party transforms from a start-up business that is just happy to have a contract to an industry powerhouse.  An employee right out of school becomes a partner in the business.  Territorial capabilities or needs change.  Etc.  When these changes happen, it is critically important that the parties’ contract(s) be reviewed, and where appropriate, revised.  Otherwise, that ever-important “meeting of the minds” that we attorneys talk about may no longer exist – and that’s a recipe for trouble.

As I’ve said before, in negotiating and drafting agreements, we should attempt to anticipate the various ways that the parties’ relationship may change over time, and where possible, include provisions that allow the contract to evolve as well.  However, it’s rarely possible to anticipate all of the changes that may occur.  For that reason, I recommend a periodic revisit of your contracts.  The old saying, “If it’s not broken, don’t fix it,” is absolutely true; but your contracts may be broken now simply because they don’t fit your evolving business relationship.  Don’t let that be the case – remember the other saying, “An ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure.”  Review your contracts and relationships periodically as part of your preventive maintenance.

How to Begin a Project With Your Lawyer

I was working on an international dealership project with a long time client this week, and something caused me to ask – why is there mention in this email string of a third party that isn’t part of our deal?  Oh, my client responded, you remember that we work with them and they get a piece of each deal “like this” – meaning not like their standard deal.  In fact, it’s been 4 years since we worked on the contract with the third party, and we haven’t worked on a deal “like this” since then (although we’ve worked on many that were not like this) – so, no, I didn’t remember.  Thank goodness I asked about the third party’s involvement, because it was not evident from any other information my client had provided so far, and without knowing this, I could have missed some key issues.

What does this scenario tell me?  It tells me that even in longstanding attorney-client relationships (and maybe especially in those relationships – since sometimes clients forget that the lawyer has many other clients and is not immersed in the client’s business 24/7), we need to always focus on the basics of the deal.  This starts with a detailed description from the client of all relevant facts, circumstances, concerns, interests, etc., and a specific identification of the ultimate business objective.  Next, the attorney should restate his or her understanding of the deal, and ask any specific questions and gather any specific information necessary to fully understand the project and properly advise the client.  This exchange between client and lawyer may be verbal or in writing, but the point is, when it’s complete, the attorney should be clear on what’s happening and what’s most important to the client.

The above process may seem obvious or even tedious, but I can assure you that it will better protect the client’s interests than the “ready, fire, aim” approach that is often the case.  An added benefit is that it will reduce legal fees and the time it takes to consummate your deal – it’s a real win-win.

Sign Your Deal NOW!

I’ve seen it happen a thousand times – in fact, I’ve seen it happen twice this week.  Parties to a negotiation reach a “deal” but don’t have documents ready for signature.  So one party takes responsibility for drafting them, but by the time drafts are circulated, one or both parties change their position, back up, get cold feet, reconsider, or whatever else you want to call it – and the deal falls apart.  While that’s not always a bad thing, it often is, and it is also frequently avoidable.

Now, I’m not suggesting that parties hastily enter into deals or sign incomplete or inaccurate agreements.  But, I am saying that well thought out and carefully considered deals are often at their best – that is, closest to the actual “meeting of the minds” that we lawyers talk about – right after negotiations are complete.  This is why it’s important to move quickly from negotiations to definitive documents, to execution. 

Remember, the name of this blog is BizB4Law – when negotiations are complete (and assuming they were well thought out and comprehensive), the “biz” portion is in most cases complete – all that is left is the “law” portion.  While the documents should spell out the business terms agreed to and fill in gaps, it is generally not productive to reconsider or reopen the negotiations – and doing so often means the parties lose the “benefit of the bargain” they had just made.

So all of this means we should follow a few simple guidelines, as follows:

• Make sure your negotiations are as comprehensive as possible.  Discuss and agree on all material terms.
• Include your lawyers as early as possible in the discussions.  If that’s not possible or productive, include them just prior to preparing definitive documents – so that any specific open issues or questions they may have get answered before the parties conclude negotiations.
• Draft definitive documents as soon as possible after negotiations are complete, and stick as closely as possible to the terms agreed to in negotiations.  The document stage is not the time to surprise your prospective business partner.
• If you feel you have to change something from what was agreed to or address something important that wasn’t previously discussed, let the other party know before you send them proposed documents.
• And finally, move from first draft to final draft to execution as soon as possible after negotiations are complete.

These are pretty simple guidelines, but they will help you to avoid disputes and get your deals done.

Be Careful When Contracting With Related Parties

Ever heard the expression, “Good fences make good neighbors.”?  I have a similar opinion as to contracts between related parties.  I’m talking about business contracts between parties who know and trust each other and may even be in related or competitive businesses.  Even in those circumstances, a clear and specific contract is important to avoid misunderstandings and effectuate the parties’ agreement.

Let me give you a recent real life scenario.  My “Client” is in a competitive and sophisticated commodity based business where a few pennies on the input or output side can mean millions of dollars and the difference between profitability and failure.  The Client is owned by a group of individuals that are also owners and operators of competitive businesses (the “Competitors”) in the same industry – this means the owners are both partners and competitors.  To further complicate things, a subset of the owners has a related company (the “Management Company”) that manages the commodity-based businesses (both the Client and the Competitors) for a fee.

So, the Client wants to enter into a contract under which the Management Company would manage the Client’s facilities – in addition to managing its own facilities and the Competitor’s facilities.  This arrangement is filled with conflicts of interest and competitive risks/concerns – in other words, this is a situation where the contract is critical.

I can’t discuss all of the key issues here, so I’ll focus on just a few.  The parties’ proposed contract said the Management Company:  (i) had complete discretion and authority to make decisions and enter into contracts binding on the Client; (ii) could use and share the Client’s confidential information with and for the Competitors’ and the Management Company’s own purposes; (iii) had no limits on competition, solicitation or the allocation of business opportunities; and (iv) had no stated standard of care.  In other words, the proposed contact was A RECIPE FOR DISASTER FOR THE CLIENT.

Now, as it turns out, none of the above provisions accurately reflected the parties’ intentions.  However, because they know each other well and trust each other, they thought they could cobble together any document labeled “Management Agreement,” and they’d just work things out as they went along.  When presented with a series of “what-if” questions, the parties quickly realized that this contract needed a lot of work, and we included provisions addressing the above issues and several others.  The result is a contract that clearly sets forth the parties’ rights and obligations and anticipates and addresses the circumstances that might otherwise result in disputes.  In other words, a contract that facilitates and builds their business relationship rather than threatening it.

Keep in mind that contracts between related parties often present the same (and sometimes even more) risks as other contracts.  Make sure you take care when entering into them – for everyone’s benefit.

Litigation From the Business/Transactional Perspective

My last blog post discussed the importance of contemplating litigation risk (or at least the likelihood of disagreements arising from time to time) in structuring business entities and relationships and in drafting contracts – in other words, anticipate and draft for the potential downside. By doing so, you can actually reduce the likelihood of disputes, and even if they do arise, they will hopefully be resolved in a quicker, less costly and more predictable manner. All of this allows clients to focus on running their businesses and making money rather than fighting legal battles and spending money.

Of course, not all disputes can be avoided or settled.  Sometimes you’re forced to litigate or arbitrate.  Even in those circumstances, however, my experience shows that substantial time, money, opportunity costs and emotional damage can be saved if those disputes are approached from a business/transactional perspective.  So, here are a few very brief thoughts on litigating “from the business/transactional perspective”:

• Approach every disagreement with a “problem-solver” rather than a “warrior” mentality.
• Try to compartmentalize disputes – disagreement about one issue doesn’t always need to poison the entire relationship.
• Never litigate over “a matter of principle” unless your business is able to afford whatever it may cost – and it always costs more than you expect.  Principles cost money and don’t generally enhance profitability.
• Don’t get hung up on who’s right or wrong – focus on the impact to your bottom line.
• Settling early costs a lot less than settling late.
• Consider mediation – it really does work sometimes.
• Litigating and winning almost always still costs you a LOT in legal fees, opportunity costs, and sometimes even reputational damage.
• Even in litigation, conduct yourself in a professional manner and with integrity – you never know who or what will lead to your next business opportunity.
• Just because you didn’t have an arbitration clause doesn’t mean you can’t agree to arbitration later on – it still may save both parties time and money.
• While in litigation, there’s no need to fight over everything.  Fight only the battles that matter – you look better in the judge’s eyes, and you don’t waste money on meaningless victories (or losses).

The bottom line is disputes cost money and take you away from your business.  Choose and conduct your battles wisely – from a business perspective.

Transactions From the Litigation Perspective

The law, like most disciplines, has very few absolute truths.  However, it is my firm opinion that a good business transaction is always better than a lawsuit.  Therefore, it’s critical that business transactions and the underlying contracts be structured to maximize value, reduce risk and avoid uncertainty.  After all, risk and uncertainty often lead to disagreement and sometimes litigation.  Therefore, I recommend that parties approach business transactions and contracts with the mindset (but not necessarily the goals) of a litigator – and then use that mindset to avoid litigation.

I do not mean that parties should be argumentative or take one-sided positions.  Rather, what I mean is the deals should be structured and contracts should be drafted as simply, clearly, consistently and comprehensively as possible.  And once you’ve done that, they should be re-examined, and the following question should be asked:

• Is this the right deal, at the right time, with the right party?
• Is the deal structured as simply as possible?
• Is the contract drafted as clearly and simply as possible?  Is it consistent?
• Which provisions invite differing interpretations?
• Have you covered as many variables/contingencies as possible (you generally can’t cover them all)?
• Have you allocated between the parties as many of the risks/responsibilities as possible (again, you may not be able to cover them all)?
• Have you included appropriate insurance, indemnity and escrow provisions?
• Have you allowed for termination or some other type of walk-away if the deal doesn’t work out?  If so, have you anticipated the likely issues, disagreements and entanglements that can arise at this stage (they can be much different than those at the outset)?
• Have you considered how disputes will be resolved?  Mediation?  Arbitration?  Litigation?  Appraisal?  By whom?  Where?  Who pays?  What law/rules govern?  Etc.
• In light of all of these questions, and even assuming you’re comfortable with all of the answers, is this a deal that should be done?

Thinking like a litigator may be the best way to avoid litigation over your business deals.

Tight Legal Budget – What Can You Not Afford Not to Do?

Let’s face it, lawyers are expensive, and really good lawyers are even more expensive.  This is my blog, so I can say it – I think I am (and each of the members of my team are) a really good lawyer.  As a result, I help my clients make a lot of money and protect their businesses and assets – but I’m expensive (at least by Iowa standards).  However, no matter how much I talk about adding value, for some people and in some circumstances legal services just feel like a pure expense – kind of like insurance – something you hate to pay for, but you know you need. 

If this is how you generally view your relationship with your lawyer, my first thought is that it’s probably time to change lawyers, or at least change the way you work with your current lawyer.  However, even if you love your lawyer and really value his/her advice, every business has to operate within a budget – which  means making risk/benefit/value decisions in everything you do, including purchasing legal services.

Here’s a different way to view your legal services budget – what can you not afford not to do or protect?  Here are a few examples of what I believe you cannot afford not to do:

• limit your personal liability with a corporation, LLC or other entity;
• protect your intellectual property and other assets;
• enter into clear agreements with your partners/co-owners as to management, buy-sell, authority and other business and strategic issues;
• adopt clear employment policies, enter into clear agreements with employees and comply with employment laws generally;
• pay your taxes and take advantage of every tax incentive and planning opportunity;
• comply with export laws;
• understand your insurance needs and purchase the right insurance; and
• . . . most importantly, fully understand and consider the legal meaning and effect of every business and legal decision you make or transaction/relationship you enter into – some of them may have “bet the company” consequences – make sure you make sure you make the right bet.

Creativity and Problem-Solving Are NOT Optional For Your Lawyer

How do businesses make money?  Typically, they identify a need that is not being satisfied or a problem that needs to be solved, and they satisfy/solve it.  In other words, challenges create opportunities for businesses – something to be overcome, rather than something that prevents you from achieving your objective.  Your business lawyer needs to think this way as well.  Creativity not only solves problems – it makes money.

Very often clients come to me with a specific opportunity they want to capitalize upon, but some sort of roadblock or hurdle that is making this difficult.  That’s both challenging and exciting.  Rather than focus on the problem, I focus on the solution.  That’s what your business lawyer needs to do too.

At the outset, remember that many challenges are simply risks, rather than obstacles.  Some lawyers can’t tell the difference – those are the ones who went to law school because they “love the law” and enjoy analyzing problems rather than identifying solutions.  Before you alter your business course because of an obstacle or problem – make sure that’s what it is rather than merely a business risk that is better evaluated and addressed by you rather than your lawyer.

Assuming there is a real legal challenge, remember that many problems have simple solutions – and it’s the lawyer’s job to find the simplest solution available.  That way, the client can get (back) to making money in business rather than solving problems and spending money working with lawyers.  However, a lawyer really shows/adds value when he/she solves a particularly complicated problem – the kind of problem that, if not solved, kills the deal.

If your business lawyer has never said things to you like –  “What if we did it this way?”  “How about approaching it differently?”  “I think you’d be better off doing this.” Or “We can’t do that, but we can accomplish your goals another way.” – then it may be time for a change.  In other words, if your lawyer is not a creative problem-solver and a calculated risk-taker, then your lawyer is part of the problem itself, rather than part of the solution.  Problems cost money; solutions make money.

Does Your Business Lawyer Know How to Protect Your IP?

Let me start by saying, I’m not a licensed patent lawyer or an IP lawyer by any definition.  No, that ship had sailed by the time I clerked with a major Midwestern law firm and the head of the Intellectual Property Practice Group laughed out loud at my undergraduate double majors in political science and history.  The true practice of intellectual property as a substantive legal area is largely one involving a deep understanding of the sciences (and I don’t mean political science). 

However, the business side of intellectual property (and of course, the business side is what this blog focuses on) requires the ability to identify valuable intellectual property, conduct a risk-benefit analysis, determine what protections are appropriate and affordable under the specific circumstances, and then (and most importantly) work with you to implement and execute a plan to PROTECT and MONETIZE your IP.

So, does your business lawyer need to be a licensed patent lawyer?  No.  What your business lawyer does need are the following skills/abilities:

• Access to a talented licensed patent lawyer in the same firm (and here’s the critical part) who does more than just process and enforce patents and trademarks – one who regularly works on IP matters and understands how they affect your business activities, relationships and agreements.
• A complete understanding of your business and a specific understanding of the types of IP you have or intend to develop.
• The ability to identify risks and opportunities to and for your IP and to inform you when one may outweigh the other.
• Practical experience in structuring and handling mergers, acquisitions, licensing agreements, joint ventures and other transactions involving valuable intellectual property.
• And finally, an open and creative mind to help you to maximize and realize (i.e., monetize) upon the value of your intellectual property.

Whether you are a technology company, a software developer, a manufacturer, an energy company or any other type of business, you likely have valuable IP – make sure you work closely with capable and experienced legal counsel to protect it.

Does Your Lawyer Understand . . .? Part 1 – Manufacturing

This is the first in a series of articles based on my experiences with lawyers who don’t understand various deals, issues, industries etc., and therefore, don’t adequately represent their clients’ interests.  In this post, I’ll discuss the basics of representing manufacturers.

The most basic issues in representing manufacturers surround supply chain contracts – i.e., contracts where one party manufactures and sells products or components to another party.  Although this seems like a simple context, there are an infinite number of issues that arise.  Here, I’m only going to try and scratch the surface by identifying a few of the most important by asking the following questions:

• Is your client the manufacturer/seller or the buyer?
• Is this a wholesale or retail transaction?
• What is the term of the agreement?
• How can it be terminated (e.g., only for cause, with or without cause, upon material breach, etc.)?
• Is the parties’ relationship exclusive in an industry, product line, territory, or otherwise?
• Is the product (or the process by which it is manufactured or sold) subject to governmental regulation?
• Will the product be exported?  If so, by whom; to whom; and is a license required?
• To whose specifications will the product be manufactured?
• Who decides if changes are necessary?
• How will orders be placed/accepted?  What about lead times, custom orders, etc.?
• Is this a requirements contract (i.e., manufacturer has to meet buyers’ requirements), an output contract (i.e., buyer has to accept manufacturer’s entire output), or something else?  If the latter, what happens if the manufacturer can’t meet the buyer’s demand?
• What are the terms of delivery/risk of loss?
• Whose warranty will govern?
• What are the payment terms?  Prepayment?  COD?  Letter of Credit?  U.S. Dollars?  Etc.
• Who is responsible for taxes, insurance, freight, etc.?
• Who owns (or has license rights to) the intellectual property?  Will any IP be developed during the term?  Will any be jointly developed?
• Can the parties use each others’ names, marks and logos?
• What are the indemnification and insurance obligations of the parties?
• Whose law will govern (especially important in international transactions), and equally important, where and how (e.g., litigation versus arbitration) will disputes be resolved?
• Are there any important restrictive covenants (both during and after the term)?  E.g., confidentiality, non-compete, non-solicitation (of empoyees, customers, etc.), non-disparagement?

These are just some of the questions/issues that your lawyer must ask/understand to adequately represent you if you are a manufacturer – make sure he/she does.