Thursday, May 21, 2009

Working With Your Attorney, Part One

Once upon a time I was in-house counsel and had a close working relationship with Jim, Contracts Manager in the IT unit. One day Jim sent me a request for a contract. “Vendor is ABC, price is $2.5 million, split 40/60. Product is a custom program called Killer App.” I drew up the appropriate contract. We would pay $2.5 million, with 40% up front (not always a wise thing to do) and 60% upon final delivery (and passing acceptance tests). All of the work product would belong to us, including all intellectual property rights. My CIO signed; ABC’s lawyers reviewed it and their CEO signed. I filed the executed agreement and went to the next project.

A few days later Jim called and said “We need to change the ABC agreement.”

“Why?” I asked. “I thought they had signed off.”

Jim explained that there had been a mix-up. Our company wanted to front the money to develop ABC’s new flagship product. In return, we would receive a no-charge license and free support ad infinitum. “They want a new agreement that says they own the work product,” Jim said.

I was in a bit of a quandary. ABC’s lawyers had blessed the contract. More, I had been a business lawyer too long to simply give away an asset. I replied “What’s it worth to them?”

Jim laughed and said he’d follow up with management. Later that day our CIO called. He complimented my mercenary instincts, but directed me to make the necessary changes. I did, but I also “extorted” a coffee mug from ABC’s sales rep. I wanted something to commemorate the occasion.

I like this story because it illustrates several things, including the need to involve lawyers in the transaction process. Had I known more about the deal, I could have got the contract right the first time. I would not have an amusing story, but the companies would have saved time and money.

Jim and I took a cue from this transaction and revised our procedures. We created a standard contract request template requiring internal clients to fully describe the transaction. When in doubt, we asked for more information. The CIO also endorsed a requirement that Jim sit in on all negotiations over a certain dollar amount. I also sat in on these from time to time, with the informed consent of the vendor.

An attorney can only draft from what he/she knows. If that knowledge is flawed or incomplete, the contract will be flawed, resulting in unnecessary delay. In addition, regarding the lawyer as merely a scribe, to be involved only at the last minute, can deprive the parties of the lawyer’s experience and insight. No one will be pleased if the lawyer is asked to provide a contract “tomorrow,” and he/she replies “But you have overlooked this, and this, and this and this.”

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