Preventive Legal Strategy

Preventive Law Step #1: Proactive Contract Development

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“Step one! We can have lots of fun.”
- Danny Wood, NKOTB

Okay, so negotiating and developing contracts may seem tedious for business owners. However, being proactive about your contracting process—the first pillar of Preventive Law—can ensure that you are not assuming unnecessary liabilities in the business relationship, and that prospective business partners are in fact qualified to do business with you.

A Cautionary Tale

We were engaged by a national product manufacturer with numerous vendors and materials suppliers. Over the course of many years, contracting had been delegated to the point where at least twenty managers across several departments were responsible for reviewing and signing contracts. There was no centralized process for vetting potential business partners to make sure there were no red flags. There were also no standard “pro-company” form contracts in place, outside of basic Non-Disclosure Agreements. This meant the company had been simply reacting to one-sided contracts provided by business partners, many of which were in complex transactional settings.

Long story short, these managers were signing contracts with multiple business partners, across multiple business functions, without fully understanding who they were contracting with or the liabilities and obligations being undertaken. They did not understand, and therefore could not negotiate, many of the legalese pitfalls contained in the one-sided agreements. And they definitely did not like being pulled away from production schedules to tend to eye-glazing tasks like this.

Ultimately, this led to the following problems for the company:

  • Assuming onerous obligations such as implementing impossible or impractical compliance programs, aggressive payment and credit-worthiness requirements, unreasonable inspection and acceptance periods, and overbroad and one-sided indemnification language;

  • Vague and one-sided contract termination provisions, giving business partners broad rights to terminate contracts for any reason and at any time without consequence;

  • Overbroad and ambiguous service provisions, resulting in projects continuing for much longer than what was initially anticipated (or desired);

  • Limited recoveries in the event of a breach of contract, including the inability to recover attorney’s fees when litigation became necessary as well as being forced to litigate in unfavorable venues; and

  • Business partners with significant safety histories and lack of appropriate insurance being given access to company premises to perform maintenance and repairs on heavy industrial equipment.

On more than one occasion, key suppliers had availed themselves of their one-sided contract provisions, resulting in substantial business interruption to the company. It was clear the company’s executive management did not understand the benefits of being proactive with its contract negotiation and development practices, and continued to find themselves having to react to problems that could have been avoided up front.

The Fix

We worked with the company to become proactive in their contracting processes, rather than reactive, by applying Preventive Law methodologies. We started by dramatically minimizing the number of managers and departments involved. The procurement department was a natural fit to centralize this function, and its new director was more than happy to have more control over the contracting process.

We then worked with the director to develop proposed pre-qualification standards given different business settings, including vendor and supplier relationships. For example, in a vendor/supplier setting, the prospective business partner would have to provide the following documentation before being considered:

  • Compliance with appropriate safety incident standards, including Experience Modification Rates and OSHA incidence rates;

  • References from previous customers regarding performance and safety;

  • Copies of drug/alcohol, jobsite safety and accountability, accident reporting, emergency response, and project inspection policies in place governing vendor/supplier projects and employees while on-site; and

  • Copies of certificates of insurance on multiple lines of coverage, with appropriate additional insured endorsements in place that adequately protected the company.

We also developed a set of “pro-company” contracts which could be tailored across multiple business functions and deployed proactively, instead of the old practice of simply responding to the one-sided vendor/supplier forms received. Needless to say, our forms were also one-sided . . . but this time in the company’s favor! Of course, the process we developed was flexible enough to accommodate having to react to the other side’s forms when necessary.

We accepted the reality that some business partners would demand their forms be used. That was okay, and we did not want to immediately blow up relationships over initial stubbornness. Instead, if this occurred, the director would simply request a copy of the contract in Word or other editable format. Reasonable business partners should expect that you will want a copy to redline if they demand use of their one-sided form. And if they refuse to do so, this should be seen as a red flag warranting consideration of other business partners (hint, if they are going to be this difficult in these initial negotiation stages, just imagine how problematic they’ll become if there are any issues with regard to contract performance!).

Game Time

After developing the standard process and forms, we worked with the director to obtain buy-in from executive management. Given the contracting problems the company had faced over a number of years, it was an easy sell. As such, we began implementing the process to ensure an enterprise-wide understanding and appreciation of what we were doing, as well as why we were doing it (all part of the Preventive Law protocol!).

Our Preventive Law team continues to be involved, particularly when:

  • The director or other side has questions about whether certain pre-qualification requirements can be limited or waived under a given set of circumstances;

  • We have deployed our own form contract, but the other side responds with its own redlines requiring review and evaluation;

  • The other side demands its own one-sided form be utilized, requiring redlines on our side to balance things out; and

  • Assistance is needed to develop negotiation strategies in order to arrive at acceptable contract language after the parties have dug in their respective feet after several rounds of back-and-forth redlining.

Following implementation, the company noticed immediate results:

  • Managers are not burdened with contract review tasks and are able to focus energy on managing their teams and making good products.

  • There is an enterprise-wide consistency around the contracting process.

  • Contracts with business partners are more balanced between the parties, and often even skewed in favor of the company when the other side signs the pro-company form without negotiating it (hint, our client is not the only one in need of Preventive Law assistance!).

  • Since the contract language has been discussed and negotiated in advance, issues with vague, ambiguous and overbroad provisions are minimized.

  • The company is able to perform effective gate-keeping early on to determine which business partners should be considered long-term fits for sustainable success, and which ones should not.

  • The contracting process finally supports the making and selling of product, instead of hindering it.

Contract negotiation and development may not be the sexiest part of running a business, but it is one of the most important. Deploying Preventive Law strategies can help you anticipate and respond to risks with prospective business partners, leveling the playing field in the process. As always, we’re here to help.


How Preventive Lawyers are Innovating the Legal Supply Chain

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A guy walks into a lawyer’s office and asks, “Can you tell me how much you charge?”
“Of course,” the lawyer replies, “I charge $500 to answer three questions.”
“Don’t you think that’s an awful lot of money to answer three questions?”
“Yes it is,” answers the lawyer, “What’s your third question?”

Though lawyer fees have been fodder for jokes for as long as we can remember, they’re really no laughing matter. Companies routinely pay much more than $500 per hour to answer far fewer than three questions. How did it get to this point? The answer is bloat. Let me give you a peek behind the curtain.

As firms take on more business and begin to grow, they add more attorneys and staff to handle these increasing workloads. With continued growth comes potential for expansion into other states to take advantage of business opportunities there. Growth means expensive nameplates on big buildings and brass, mahogany and marble office spaces to draw larger corporate clients. This also means hiring more attorneys at high salaries, as well as partnership opportunities for those attorneys who are able to bill significant hours and generate business to enrich the firm.

Business development naturally leads to the need for even more attorneys and office space, and in turn more costs and overhead, much of which are passed along to the client in the form of exorbitant hourly rates. In most larger cities, these rates will exceed $500 per hour, which can have a chilling effect on the businesses these attorneys are meant to serve. Voila! You now have a bloated law firm. And guess who gets to pay to keep it afloat? That’s right. You.

DIY Could Mean RIP

What options exist for companies that want top-tier legal advice without the bloat? I can’t speak to all legal specializations, but in the area of Preventive Law, we often see businesses deciding to “go it alone” rather than pay these high law firm rates. While these companies may enjoy not having to pay legal fees, what few realize is that they place themselves at exponentially higher risk. Ironically, such DIY practices can cause even bigger problems:

  • Insurance policies are legalese monstrosities, containing complex language and articles that can later be exploited by insurers. A company that buries its head in the sand, hoping those policies will react in the event of loss, not only ensures the language will be exploited, but further increases the likelihood of gaping coverage holes. 

  • Failing to proactively manage your insured claims and lawsuits can lead to strategies which are not in your best interests, resulting in skyrocketing premiums or even loss of coverage.

  • Relying on non-lawyers such as insurance brokers to help you understand the legalese contracts and claims strategies could limit your recourse (hint, an insurance policy is a contract with your insurer, not your broker or anyone else).

  • Signing vendor and supplier (and other) agreements without fully understanding and negotiating the terms in advance means you may have unwittingly assumed obligations that can blindside your business later.

  • Failing to develop and implement internal policies and procedures can result in significant exposure to business interruption, cyber events, HR risks and regulatory actions.

These are not meant to be scare tactics, but rather highlight issues we see on a regular basis. Understandably, high law firm rates often result in second-guessing whether to enlist attorney assistance to address these concerns.

Escaping from the Rock and Hard Place

The emerging practice of Preventive Law presents a viable option for companies who want peace of mind without paying absurd hourly and retainer fees. Preventive Law develops and implements proactive strategies involving insurance, litigation, human resources, R&D, procurement, real estate, marketing and regulatory compliance. The rewards for companies that implement these strategies include:

  • More informed decision-making;

  • Improved efficiency and reaction time;

  • Lower contract, claim, litigation and regulatory exposure; and

  • Better opportunities to recover significant insurance proceeds when necessary.

These benefits are primary reasons why larger companies hire lawyers to serve as in-house corporate counsel. On-boarding attorneys also improves predictability of corporate legal spend. No longer does the business have to worry about a department head picking up the phone to call an expensive attorney to discuss a business or legal strategy when you have a lawyer on staff.

Of course, adding in-house corporate lawyers means rising costs, and your business may not have the need for full time legal services, let alone resources to afford them. Again, this is where Preventive Law practices can provide value and flexibility, and in a cost-effective manner. Let’s peel back the curtain even further.

Mindless Habitual Behavior is the Enemy of Innovation

How is Preventive Law able to offer top-tier legal support without astronomical fees? Successful Preventive Law practices eliminate billable hours altogether and offer instead a retainer-based, client-facing, value-driven model. Okay, that’s a lot of hyphens, so what does it all mean?

In short, a Preventive Law firm thrives when the client thrives. The preventive legal practitioner’s fee is not calculated using inward-facing attorney billing rates, but rather using on-boarding costs, adjusted to reflect that client’s relative need for preventive legal services on a monthly basis (hint, review glassdoor.com and salary.com for average corporate counsel salaries/benefits in a particular city, and then adjust for the size of the company, type of industry, and potential legal and business risks facing that company). Next, the preventive lawyer determines an appropriate term for engagement, which will again depend on each client’s particular needs. A minimum of four- to six-month engagement is considered optimal to develop institutional knowledge and exposure to different departments and personnel which can provide efficiencies for the client down the road.

Once engaged, the preventive lawyer keeps detailed daily time entries for work performed. “But I thought you said not to bill clients!” you astutely point out because you’ve been paying attention. Here’s where Preventive Law departs from its traditional legal counterpart.

Preventive Law serves the client rather than padding the law firm. This is why time isn’t kept for purposes of billing, but rather to track the effective hourly rate on both a monthly and aggregate basis. These updated time-sheets are made available with each monthly invoice to assist the client in determining the value of services rendered, both subjectively (through perceived quality) and objectively (through the effective hourly rate). If it’s discovered at the end of the term that the effective rate was higher than anticipated, the lawyer offers to reduce the monthly fee for the next term. After all, the mindset is not “winning” in this business relationship, but rather demonstrating a trusted partnership and adding true value.

When done properly, Preventive Law practices offer accessible, cost-effective access to attorneys on the front end, which in turn can enhance business decision-making while minimizing exposure to catastrophic risks. We know this is a new option for some and would enjoy helping you better understand its benefits. We've found that companies are better off paying for quality legal counsel instead of mahogany, brass and marble. If you have any questions about Preventive Law, please reach out. As always, we’re here to help.

YEAR ONE: What We Do

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What's the one question that always gets asked?

Are you traveling for the holidays?

If so, chances are you're spending some time on airplanes and will end up chatting with the person seated next to you. Inevitably, there’s one question that always gets asked. That’s right: “What do you do?”

Candidly, that’s a great question. While this may be an easy question for some to answer, we must confess that we've found it difficult. To say we’re a boutique legal practice that specializes in insurance law and risk strategy doesn’t typically excite most people, nor does it capture the essence of what we “do”. The truth is, KEEFER is much more than that.

It wasn't that long ago that we turned on the lights in our downtown Portland office. With our desks facing each other, we filled our time with brainstorming sessions, endless research and back-to-back coffee meetings as we set out to invest in this community that we now call home.

Preventive Law?

“So, what you are doing is like preventive medicine," said a colleague during one of our many coffee meetings. And that was it. We had it.

KEEFER is a Preventive Law practice.

According to the American College of Preventive Medicine, the goal of preventive medicine is to “protect, promote and maintain health and well-being of the patient and to prevent disease, disability and death.” It’s much more rewarding to stay ahead of our health than it is to do damage control. We can find dozens of excuses to not exercise or to indulge (especially at this time of year), but have to remind ourselves of how much better we feel and how clear our thoughts are when we put in the work up front.

Like preventive medicine, we are proactive in our approach. With business-forward strategies and pricing structure to match, we work with companies on the front end to minimize exposure in the future. This includes overseeing insurance relations, managing claims and litigation, contract negotiation and development and day-to-day legal and business strategies.

The KEEFER Client

We’re building momentum and continue to serve clients we feel fortunate to work with. We’ve been deliberate in defining the type of businesses we best serve which include proactive decision makers who have a genuine desire to learn. These leaders have integrity and transparency which have allowed for a mutual trust between us.

Here are some highlights from 2018:

  • We worked with a client to recover several million dollars in insurance proceeds it would have otherwise missed.

  • We guided a medical device manufacturer with regard to federal and European compliance issues.

  • We helped a national product manufacturer manage and resolve a series of litigation matters, which had spiraled out of control over several years, resulting in significantly lower legal spend and exposure. 

  • We collaborated with a regional shipping company on strategic planning for an intermodal development project. 

  • Most recently, a client came to us for contract management and found it was not properly protected in its agreements. We helped to restructure contracts and put a strategy into place that should protect this company for years to come!  

As we reflect on how we've helped our clients over the past year, we can see why our friend compared what we do to preventive medicine. It’s exciting to be on the front end of things, working with like-minded businesses to anticipate and respond to risks before they materialize. And when we travel south for the New Year holiday, we'll be able to confidently answer the question, "What do you do?"

We’ve enjoyed another Christmas with Santa and our young boys and are looking forward to quality time in the sunshine with family. We’re hopeful for what 2019 will bring and until then, we wish you a holiday season filled with peace and joy. Taking the time to revel in the moment, which I’m certain falls in line with “promoting well-being”, truly fills our cups.

We sincerely thank you for your trust and are grateful for your continued support. May your cups be full as we wrap up a wonderful 2018.

Cheers!  

Garetta & Chris