(July 6, 2012): This article is a continuation of our discussion on how a business person can manage attorneys and other professionals in the legal process of his business transactions, to minimize the costs and risks. A link to Part II is provided: Click here for Part II.
I. Efficient Business Transactions, Continued:
(k) Conform to Conventions about Roles of Parties in Transactions. In most transactions, the buyer, investor or lender (i.e. the money side of the deal) will expect their legal counsel to produce the first draft of most documents in the transaction, on which the other side will make comments and negotiate changes. While this means the documents start out skewed in favor of the money side, there are sound reasons why the seller or issuer side should allow this. If the seller, say, insists on providing a first draft document, the process of the buyer negotiating it into a form signable by his side will add more time and expense to the closing for all concerned than will be justified by any drafting advantage.
(l) Understand what Legal Documents are involved in your Deal, and What Function Each Serves. The day is long past (if it ever came) when a business person can turn an important transaction over to legal counsel, say “Close this deal for me please”, and walk away. By now the reader will see that his or her relationship with their professionals should be less like a patient’s relationship with a physician than a boss’s relationship with highly-skilled employees. Your transaction counsel may have been through a hundred transactions, and you through none, but you still need to play a leadership role, and make business (i.e. economic) decisions. While you don’t need to know all the law to do these things, you do need to understand the basics, and know the functions on a business level of all significant documents.
(m) Respect the Negotiation Process. Store up Credits when you Concede a Point. Table small negotiating items, and Trade them down the road for a bigger point you Know Is Coming. Westerners often view the process of negotiation with disdain. I have had clients approach a negotiation saying “I will just open with my bottom line number, and let them take it or leave it. We will cut to the chase.” This is seldom effective. Business people of all cultures hate to take a first offer in any important matter. Rigid intransigence in negotiation usually repels the other side. And humans seldom view any decision as binary, with a fixed bright-line dollar amount where it stops being desirable. The prudent business person allows for this, starts every negotiation a bit away from his bottom number, and assumes the other side is doing likewise.
In section (g) above I mentioned the psychological bonding that usually arises when parties negotiate. There is a natural tendency for a party winning a point in negotiation to feel softer about the next point. Bear this human trait in mind, and use it.
If you are communicating well with your professionals, they will alert you to issues they expect to emerge in the transaction process which may be serious problems for you. Every significant deal has hurdles. One of your biggest challenges will be to keep track of these matters and plan how to deal with them. Most issues in a business negotiation are more important to one side than the other. Experienced deal people look for points more significant to the other side than to themselves, and position themselves to grant the other side one or more “gives” on such points, in exchange for a concession important to them.
(n) Keep Business and Legal Issues Separate. Don’t let Attorneys get Stalemated; Make sure Yours Knows when to Hand-off an Issue. After the drafting side presents its initial draft of a transaction document, the commenting attorney reads the document, flags language possibly creating a problem or “issue” for his client, speaks to his client if necessary to clarify what are and what aren’t problems, replies to the drafting attorney with descriptions of the issues, and (usually) proposed text changes to fix them. When the commenting attorney describes issues with the drafter, he does so in legal terms, while he normally communicates issues to his client in business terms.
One of 3 things must result from the above: Either (i) the drafter agrees with the commenter about both the issue and the text change; (ii) the drafter agrees an issue exists and with the concept of the proposed resolution, but disagrees on the text change; or (iii) the drafter disagrees on the issue and the proposed text change. In case (i) things are obviously fine, and the process continues without interruption. In case (ii), competent attorneys will always be able to craft some mutually agreeable drafting fix, and get to case (i). In case (iii) however, if good faith discussion doesn’t produce case (i) quickly, prolonged haggling by the attorneys becomes wasteful. Your attorney (whether he is the drafter, or the commenter), should recognize the stalemate in this situation, table that discussion with opposing counsel, and add the issue to a list of issues to be referred to you. Further conversation between lawyers is probably useless, and your counsel should know this.
When all documents being drafted have been covered in the process described above, sit down with your counsel and review the full list of open issues. A skill absolutely vital for competent transaction counsel is the ability to translate each issue for you from legal to business terms with perfect clarity. From this conversation, decide what is and what isn’t worth negotiating. Issues falling into the former category are now identified as business issues. These you must resolve with your business counterpart in the transaction, failing which of course the closing process must halt. The point however is that lawyers must never be the ones to hold on to a stalemated issue.
(o) Be ready to Step In if other Professionals Over-Negotiate. If progress seems too slow in negotiating the legal documents, you may discover that opposing counsel is producing too many case (ii)s and case (iii)s in the process described above, which means he or she is either asking for or disagreeing with changes which aren’t really significant to their client. If that occurs, you should be prepared to complain politely but clearly to your counterpart.
I mention this with some hesitation, because it can easily be counter-productive, and you must tread carefully. It’s hard for you to know what is and isn’t truly significant for the other side. Also, be wary if it’s your lawyer who says the other is over-negotiating; perceptions like that are common but sometimes not fair. As you will appreciate, wrongly saying the other side’s attorney is behaving badly violates the courtesy and politeness rule above.
(p) Avoid Too Many Turns of Documents. This is most important in negotiating the umbrella agreement, but applies to other documents too. During the document negotiation phase of the closing process, there is a temptation to urge the drafting lawyer to hurry making redrafts of the umbrella agreement, in an effort to speed the closing process. The problem here is that each time the drafting attorney redrafts a document, the commenting counsel has to read it and perform the discernment process described in (l) above. This is the most exacting work a transaction lawyer ever performs, and as mentioned in the Introduction, is the single most expensive part of the legal process. The drafting lawyer should not use the redrafting process to tell the commenting lawyer which requested changes the drafter’s side disagrees with. Instead, any decline of requested changes should be communicated verbally, and redrafting should wait until all known issues in the document are resolved at least in principle. This means that redrafting must wait until the business people finish the negotiation described in (l). In rare cases, redrafting may proceed although business people are stalemated on an issue, and the relevant text is bracketed in the redraft when this happens. But the only surprises a commenting lawyer should ever find in an intermediate draft is how the drafter chooses to phrase some concept that has been agreed on. Otherwise both the redrafting work and the review and comment work tend to be wasted, and previously-flagged issues get flagged again and re-negotiated. This slows the closing process and wastes legal fees.
(q) Look out for Legal Opinion Letters. Smoke Them Out Early. Lawyers loathe giving written opinions, and perceive them as professionally risky, although very few lawyers are successfully sued over them. Clients seldom appreciate the time they necessarily require, and the resulting bills. Every law firm has rigid internal procedures to follow in signing opinions, and they usually involve partners who aren’t making money from the client in question learning the facts and law involved and approving the opinion. This is a disagreeable experience for all concerned.
Opinion letters are therefore occasions for delay and conflict in legal closings. The best practice is for each party to advise the other as early as possible (around the time the 1st draft of the umbrella agreement is produced) what opinions they will need, with requested text, and what qualifications the signing attorney must have (usually, of what state’s bar must he be a member). Get the texts of opinions your side must provide to the relevant lawyer promptly, and find out if he or she is prepared to give them. Some deviation from requested texts always occurs, but a competent attorney will be able to tell you what if any parts require significant changes. The goal here is for any negotiations over opinions to go on in parallel with the drafting of the documents, which allows time for issues to be resolved. Don’t let these negotiations start near the projected closing date, which is exactly what will happen if opinions are not addressed early.
(r) Arbitration. Arbitration clauses pass in and out of fashion, and are touted as cheaper alternatives to court litigation. Most of the cost savings in arbitration come from the reduced or absent discovery, which in court litigation is the most expensive part of 90% of all cases. In my experience arbitration produces a less predictable result, meaning verdicts which don’t naturally flow from the facts occur more often. I also believe the abbreviated process gives the arbitrators less confidence in their own conclusions than a judge usually has in a court case, creating a reluctance to select clear winners and losers. (It should be appreciated that our laws tend to force courts to determine clear winners and losers). So arbitrators more frequently just “split the baby”; and obviously this favors a contract breaching party. Based on this, my advice to clients is to decline arbitration clauses if they expect to be the party trying to enforce the hard contract terms in a business dispute.
Legal transactions require owner’s management to be efficient like any other part of a business operation. Selection of and reliance on an able transaction lawyer who works well with you is vital to an efficient closing process. Likewise, hewing to some simple rules and procedures that are proven over time can save time, legal fees, and wear and tear on the parties.
David Parker is the managing member of Liles Parker in our Washington, D.C. office. David handles corporate finance, structuring and negotiating secured debt and loans, corporate governance and compliance, and business transactions. If you are interested in buying or selling a business, or raising or lending capital, call David for a free consultation today at 1 (800) 475-1906.