01 Apr 2008 @ 10:58 PM 

The Scene: A small town saloon in the wild west, in the late 1800s. A rancher and a farmer sit around a table discussing their businesses – the rancher’s herd is growing and he needs more grazing land. The farmer has been unhappy with some spots of his acreage that haven’t performed well and agrees to let the rancher’s herd graze there for a fee. The matter discussed, the partners stand, look each other in the eye and shake hands. Agreement.

Fast forward about a hundred years to the same location to now find a bar in the place of that saloon. Once again, we find a couple of potential business partners discussing matters around a table. One has a brilliant idea and a lot of enthusiasm, the other has money and connections. They get along well and each see merit in what the other can bring to the venture. The matter discussed, the partners stand and look each other in the eye. Then the investor turns, delves into a bag, and produces a small library’s worth of documents. “These are the standard forms and agreements I require when I invest. My attorney has already filled in the basic details of this deal. Have your people look over them and let’s try to get this settled as soon as possible.” The partners shake hands on leaving, but it’s not the same.

I probably didn’t really have to hark back to a simpler time to find a deal done on a handshake – to find an agreement based on honor, trust and mutual reliance between partners. One of the points of friction in many companies, large and small, is that “legal” or “accounting” are holding the deal up. Randy Komisar, in his book The Monk and the Riddle, describes how it felt to be the attorney in a side room going over papers, verifying all technicalities, while the management players were in the board room after an acquisition, shaking hands and celebrating. Many yearn for a simpler time, when deals could be done on a handshake, but the evolution of experience and a complex legal liability landscape have changed the rules of the game. That said, for the intents and purposes of many entrepreneurs and small business owners, agreements often may not need to be as long or incomprehensible as our attorneys may advise in order to be effective.

Nearly everyone who has ever needed to review a business contract has become familiar with the term “boilerplate“. It refers to language which is considered to be more or less universal in its application and non-negotiable. Although in many applications, it is universally applicable, much of the boilerplate is drafted to favor one party’s position. As I mentioned in a previous post, lawyers are paid to be pessimists, and to plan for when the deal goes bad, not if it goes bad. And where Sales and Marketing think through where they want to drive a deal, lawyers are asked to think of all the places a deal could go off into uncharted territory and provide for a safety net. That safety net takes the form of an agreement with a whole host of “What ifs,” including the ever-popular what happens in the event of an Act of God, an unforeseeable and unpreventable natural disaster? In the event that particular crisis does hit, you’ll be glad that language is there, but it does make agreements bulky, imposing and harder to understand. Luckily, it can be minimized as you develop a legal strategy for your company. I want to break this up in an effort to make my posts less long and more readable, so I’ll continue to explore this over my next post or two, which should also help me post more often.

Posted By: TJ
Last Edit: 02 Apr 2008 @ 12:06 PM

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