Understand What No Lawyer or Document Can Do For You

I was recently helping a client with a stock purchase in a deal that just felt wrong to me. Each time we asked a question or reviewed a document, it seemed additional issues, questions and concerns arose. Notwithstanding this fact, the investment bankers, company officers and selling stockholders assured us in each instance that there was no problem – usually with the excuse that it was simply bad record-keeping, a lack of attention to detail or a favorable related party transaction that would not adversely affect the company or my client going forward. In fact, they said, it was precisely because of these circumstances that my client had been presented with this amazing investment opportunity. I did not find these explanations to be persuasive or reassuring, even when the sellers agreed to provide a litany of warranties and representations, broad indemnification rights, and other contractual protections.

In this circumstance, I was compelled to explain to my client a very simple fact – while a lawyer can draft an all-encompassing contract in which virtually every possible risk is anticipated and addressed with detailed indemnifications, aggressive remedial provisions, escrows, etc., that does not turn a bad deal into a good one or provide the same level of protection as walking away from a bad deal.

The simple truth is, if your due diligence yields more questions than answers more uncertainty than certainty, and more risks than opportunities – and if you find yourself spending an inordinate amount of time and effort trying to protect yourself from known and unknown legal risks and possible bad behavior or misrepresentations by the other party (versus ordinary course business risks) – no amount of lawyering and no legal document can adequately protect you. In that case, you really only have 2 choices – (1) walk away from the deal, or (2) draft that over-the-top contract with all of the bells, whistles and protections and “hang on for the ride.” And if you opt for alternative 2, understand that a good lawyer and a good contract do not make a good deal.

Does Your Business Need a Little “Spring Cleaning?”

Spring is an exciting time. It signals the end of a long, dark and sometimes dreary winter and the beginning of a new season of growth, opportunity, color and activity. It’s also the time when many of us make a long “to do” list filled with tasks that we tackle with energy, enthusiasm and excitement – knowing that truly the seeds we plant today will yield a bountiful harvest some time down the road.

Unfortunately, very few of us have a similar seasonal signal that it’s time to clean up, get organized and plan(t) for the future. Instead, we’re so wrapped up in the day-to-day activities of running our businesses that we never get to the “spring cleaning.” Since spring is literally upon us, I want to make a pitch for a seasonal sprucing up from a business and legal standpoint.

As business owners, you know far better than I what sorts of projects will most benefit your businesses – but I’ll take a shot at identifying some that might yield value (while sticking with my spring cleaning analogy):

• Reset the Clocks – businesses and their owners need to reset priorities and revise strategies from time to time, or you simply run out of time in the day.

• Clean Out the Garage – businesses develop “clutter” just like households. Take the time to clean up and eliminate it so that it doesn’t distract you from your mission.

• Plant the Annuals – annuals are like near term goals for a business. With a limited amount of effort they can blossom and yield immediate benefit, but only if you do the groundwork at the right time and in the right way.

• Plant the Perennials – perennials are more like long term business objectives. They require more planning and nurturing than annuals, but yield long term rewards.

• Do It Yourself and/or Hire the (right) Lawn Service – this is a big one. As the owner, you need to decide where your time is best spent and who the right people are to handle the rest. Do what you’re best at and enjoy most and hire the rest. BUT, don’t hire the first service that sends you an attractive brochure. Make sure your advisers understand you and your business.

Spring is a time of great energy and promise. Make sure you harness both for the benefit of your business.

Negotiating With Investors – Focus on What Really Matters

Negotiations with investors are tough – especially when you’re not accustomed to these kinds of discussions and the party across the table engages in them on a regular basis.  What’s the most important advice (right after hiring a good/experienced lawyer who understands your business) – focus on what’s important – economics and control.

Having stated that you must understand and try to aggressively protect, retain and preserve economic/financial upside and control, it’s also essential to understand that the investor has something you need – money – and it’s inherently reasonable for that investor to expect in return for providing you with that money that he or she will receive both (a) substantial economic upside in the event the company is successful and downside protection if it’s not, and (b) a degree of control in order to protect that investment.

Unfortunately, I can’t provide a detailed explanation in a blog post of all of the terms and variables that arise in negotiating economics and control, but here are a few you must understand (Note – if you don’t know what these terms mean, find out before negotiating):

• Valuation – what ownership share will the investor get for invested dollars?

• Dividends – if the investor is to receive dividends, how much, when, who decides, and are they cumulative?

• Preference – assuming the investor gets paid first upon a liquidity event and that payment is more than the initial investment (i.e., a preference), how much more?

• Participation – after receiving the preference, does the investor get to “participate” in the remaining proceeds, and if so, to what extent?

• Dilution – how can various parties be diluted (including by an employee incentive pool), and what impact will this have on distribution of proceeds?

• Board Seats – who fills the Board seats, and what is the “balance of power”?

• Voting Rights and Protective Provisions – what issues does the investor get to vote on and/or veto?

• Conversion Rights – assuming investors receive preferred stock, when can they convert to common, and what impact might that have?

• Tag-Along and Drag-Along – under what circumstances can parties force others to participate in a sale or allow them to participate in a sale?

The above list is, admittedly, abbreviated, but it should give you an idea of the most important issues in negotiating with investors – everything else pales in comparison.

The Pros and Cons of the “Just Do It” Mentality

I’m showing my age with this one, but hopefully most reading this will at least vaguely remember the old Nike ads urging you to, “Just Do It.” They were filled with pictures of great athletes “giving 110%,” “going the extra mile,” and otherwise living the “no pain, no gain” mantra. I’m a big believer in that portion of the message and note that it would seem to have equal applicability and validity in the business world as well as the sports world. After all, it’s not easy to excel or reach the top (or even your own best) in any activity – without extremely hard work and complete focus and dedication, you’re not likely to get there in sports, business or life.

However, the other message that some people got from the “Just Do It” slogan is extreme urgency – the need to move immediately, take unreasonable chances and bet it all to succeed – throwing caution to the wind in exchange for moving quickly. While that may (or in fact may not) be a reasonable thing to do in your sports and fitness training, I believe this approach is both imprudent and generally unnecessary in your business matters, and sometimes leads to disaster.

The bottom line is, I think “Just Do It” is a great mantra for buying shoes – and even for bringing out the inner athlete, inner entrepreneur, or inner risk-taker of virtually any kind in all of us. After all, great ideas, great people and great companies usually start with someone discarding the status quo and opting instead to take a risk by introducing some sort of “disruptive” idea or concept. However, I don’t think it is a great strategy for running your business. In that regard, I prefer one of the famous quotes by the late John Wooden – “Be quick, but don’t hurry.”

Know Where You Want to Go Before You Start

You’d never leave on a family vacation without knowing where you’re going and what you’ll do when you get there. So, why would you begin a business negotiation without knowing what your objectives and acceptable outcomes are? My answer – you shouldn’t.

So, am I saying you need to know exactly where your negotiations must conclude before you even begin discussions? Of course not – negotiations necessarily involve multiple parties, all of whom have their own goals and expectations. It would be foolish to think you can predict and control all possible outcomes, and short-sighted and unrealistic to believe the only successful outcome will be exactly the one most beneficial to you. After all, successful negotiations almost always require give and take from all parties to ultimately arrive at a win-win arrangement. Without this, at least one party will, presumably, have no incentive (or not enough incentive) to do the deal.

What is critical, however, is that you not enter into negotiations without giving careful thought to what your objectives are, the ways that you might be able to achieve them, and the outcomes that would be acceptable. Note that I’ve said objectives, ways and outcomes – plural. Just like the old saying, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat” – there’s almost always more than one way to structure a business deal.

I recommend you follow these basic suggestions before entering into business negotiations:

• Identify your ultimate objectives – the primary reasons you’re considering this deal.

• Consider the various ways that you might be able to achieve those objectives.

• Identify your secondary objectives – things that would be nice to get, but are not essential.

• Consider the various ways that you might be able to achieve those without compromising on the primary objectives. Also consider things that you would view as deal-killers.

• To the extent you’re able, go through the same analysis from the other party or parties’ perspective – see the deal through their eyes.

• Now, once again, consider how you can achieve your primary (and hopefully secondary) objectives AND how the other parties might also achieve theirs. Hopefully there are several ways to get there – some of which may be more or less desirable to you, but all of which would be acceptable.

• Having gone through this exercise, it’s now time to negotiate.

Remember, your best way to achieve a successful outcome is to consider what that might look like before entering into negotiations, rather than looking back and wondering what went wrong.

The Importance of Follow-Through and Tying Up Loose Ends

Averting a crisis is exciting! Negotiating a deal is exciting! Closing a deal is exciting! Moving on to the next deal is exciting! Making a follow-up “To-Do List” and completing the tasks on that list is not. However, I see time and again situations where important post-closing items fall through the cracks and ultimately end up costing parties time and money – often resulting in lost opportunities, disappointed expectations and a failure to obtain the full benefit of the bargain that was struck.

So what are some of the most common examples of poor follow-through? You might be surprised – they include failure to:
• actually sign the transaction documents, or to obtain all necessary signatures from parties such as, e.g., guarantors;
• obtain final executed documents and keep them where you can locate them in the future;
• attach critical exhibits – like legal descriptions, product schedules, minimum purchase quotas, etc.;
• obtain bonds, proof of insurance or important loss payee designations;
• docket important future dates, like delivery of tax returns, financial statements, renewal/termination dates, etc.;
• properly file (or to promptly file) documents such as mortgages, UCC financing statements, patent applications, etc.;
• follow the terms of the transaction documents, or to execute an amendment when the deal changes;
• require the return of confidential information and business assets such as copies of agreements, customer lists, product specifications, laptops, cell phones, etc. upon the termination of a business relationship; and
• obtain required approvals from lenders, shareholders, directors, etc.

The above items are merely examples of failures to follow through that can have a devastating impact on a deal or company. My advice – don’t be the company that fails to follow through by tying up the loose ends of your deals. Make post-closing checklists; prepare executive summaries of important agreements; docket dates; keep originals (or at least copies) of important agreements where you can locate them; and most importantly, take the necessary steps to realize and protect the value of your deals!

Negotiating a Deal? Be a Mediator, Not a Gladiator

What’s the primary goal of most business negotiations? I don’t mean negotiations in the context of a dispute – I mean in the context of a prospective business deal or relationship. In that setting, the primary goal is to reach agreement. And that generally means emphasizing mutual benefit and necessary compromise to reach the desired outcome for both parties, not just one – after all, if your negotiations are so “successful” that the other party has lost everything, there’s really no reason for that party to proceed at all. In other words, you may “win” the negotiation battle but “lose” the deal.

So, how should a business person (and that business person’s lawyer) approach negotiations? Simply put, I think it’s better to assume the role of mediator than that of gladiator; be a problem-solver not a competitor. That doesn’t mean that you must avoid confrontation and disagreement in all cases. What it does mean is you should pick and choose your “battles” carefully; and where possible, avoid them entirely by finding creative solutions.

Negotiation is not generally possible without some level of disagreement. If that weren’t the case, we’d never need to exchange multiple drafts of an agreement, since all parties would simply agree to the first draft. Disagreement is not the problem. Confrontation, however, often times can be – particularly if it’s not handled with professionalism and diplomacy. If disagreement is necessary, try and explain to the other party why your position is reasonable, and why the issue is important. If it’s a potential “deal-breaker,” explain that too. In the end, I believe it’s most productive to avoid confrontation when you can. Disagree when it’s important, but even then seek compromise where it’s possible and makes business sense. Be creative and seek to find win-win solutions. Remember, the goal is to get the deal done on terms that benefit everyone – not walk away after “fighting a good fight.”

The Agreement is Signed – Now What?

Ever heard someone say, “Now that the contract is signed, we can put it in a drawer and never look at it again.”? I understand this thinking – if it means the business terms are so clear, and the relationship is so good, that they don’t need to obsess over contractual minutia. In other words, compliance is sort of on auto-pilot. What I’m opposed to, however, is not knowing, or directly ignoring, the requirements of your contracts.

Businesses ignore their contracts for a variety of reasons, including:

 • Things are going so well from a business standpoint that they don’t care what the contract says.
• Conversely, things are so bad that they don’t care.
• They’re too busy, or compliance is too much of a hassle.
• Or, finally, the contract simply doesn’t accurately state their business arrangement.

None of these are good reasons to ignore your contracts. Non-compliance means risk; risk means exposure; and exposure threatens the success (and sometimes survival) of your business.

Here are a few suggestions to ensure contract compliance:

• Keep your contracts as simple as possible.
• Try to match your contract terms with your general business practices and processes.
• Seek uniformity in your contracts (and make sure your lawyers do this when they draft them) on both business terms and more standard “boilerplate”terms.
• Have the same person negotiate the same types of contracts.
• Assign a specific person to be ultimately responsible for performance, oversight and compliance for each contract – preferably the person who negotiated it or someone who is directly involved in performance.
• Prepare executive summaries of the material terms, and review them periodically.
• Make sure those directly involved in the performance each contract know its terms.
• And finally, don’t enter into contracts that don’t accurately state your business agreement, and amend them if circumstances change so that they no longer do so.

Think of it this way – if the deal was important enough to enter into a contract, then it’s important enough to make sure that contract is accurate and to comply with it.

What Would a Judge (or Jury) Do?

I was working through a contract recently with a client and having the same conversation I’ve had many times over the years.  My client informed me that she and the other party had a high level of trust and had verbally agreed upon the basic business terms to govern their relationship.  Counsel for the other party had then been asked to prepare a simple contract and came back with something quite lengthy and detailed and quite different from what the parties had discussed and agreed.

So, what’s the best way to approach this situation?  My client’s inclination was to raise her concerns in an e-mail but (to avoid delays) otherwise just execute the agreement and move ahead.  After all, the parties trusted each other and knew what the deal was, and they didn’t want lawyers getting in the way – which was already happening with the first draft of the contract.  As you may guess, I was not in favor of this approach.

In these situations, perhaps the most basic question is similar to the one on so many bracelets – “WWJD?”  I don’t mean the question that immediately comes to mind for most of us, but rather – “What would a judge or jury do” if confronted with this contract and this set of circumstances?  Or more specifically, what would a judge or jury, without knowing the parties and their agreement beyond what’s in the written contract, determine their legal rights and obligations to be?  If you can’t live with the various likely interpretations, then you need to redraft the agreement, even if it means taking out much of the inaccurate detail and taking a “less is more” approach – which is what we did in this case.

No matter how quickly you want to move and how important the deal is, the material business terms should be accurately reflected in a written contract; and you should never sign a contract that misstates those terms – no matter how high the level of trust.  Remember – “WWJD?”

Strategic Alignment Goes Beyond Your Workforce

Business consultants frequently discuss the importance of having an aligned workforce – one with an identified and accepted culture, common values, a shared vision for the future, and a uniformly adopted strategic plan for getting there.  I would suggest for businesses of all shapes and sizes the need for alignment extends beyond your workforce to include, at a minimum, your legal counsel and other important advisers.

Why, you might ask, is it important that your outside advisers be “aligned” with you and your business?  In the simplest terms, having aligned advisers results in: (i) less wasted time; (ii) less wasted money in both consulting fees and lost opportunities; (iii) less frustration and misunderstandings; (iv) more productive negotiations and transactions; and (v) more meaningful and direct accomplishment of your business goals.

So, what does it mean to have aligned advisers, and how do you get them?  Here are a few thoughts:

•         First, choosing the “right” advisers is critical – different advisers have different personalities, approaches and philosophies – choose those that share yours from a big picture perspective.  But understand that this alone is not enough.

•         Remember, you set the course – not them.  Aligned advisers adopt your approach, not theirs – so they need to know what your approach is and what your objectives are.

•         In addition, your advisers must know what tactics and methods you want to use to achieve your objectives – overall and in each transaction or circumstance.  Make sure your directions are clear in this regard.  Think joint venture versus distributor, or even 50-page agreement versus handshake deal.

•         Make sure your advisers are informed as to changes in culture, philosophy, tactics, objectives, budget, etc.  They can’t execute what they don’t know.

•         Finally, periodically evaluate your advisers and their alignment.  If they don’t get passing marks, make a change.

The value of alignment cannot be overstated.  Make it part of your consulting and advisory relationships.