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?”

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.