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A View from an Outside General Counsel’s Perch

I was an in-house general counsel for more than 5 years at Namaste Solar. While in the role, I learned that rendering traditional legal advice was, as they say, necessary but totally insufficient to being successful or adding value. My colleagues consistently pushed me to add value by offering what I now call “legally informed strategic advice,” by which I gave actionable advice to make a decision in light of real world constraints and risk. No path was totally free of risk and no decision could be completely optimized for one variable at the expense of all others.  Law school, for better or worse, teaches lawyers to analyze a case with 20-20 hindsight and to evaluate the facts in light of black letter law. I was rarely pushed, or even inspired to go further and analyze what should have been the decision in light of broader circumstances.

So, when I became an in house counsel, I had to play a critical team role and advise a $20+M company through volatile and risky waters. We navigated a recapitalization, a turbulent and unpredictable policy landscape, layoffs, litigation, growth, scaling production capacity and massive industry consolidation. We had to act with poise, a watchful eye, but always with the clarity of knowing that unknowns lay just around the corner.

This experience has informed how we now offer general outside counsel to our clients today. We do this for more than 25 clients each year, and the number continues to grow. Increasing demand for our outside general counsel services tells us that (a) values and vision aligned legal counsel is rare and hard to find, (b) counsel willing to advise at the intersection of legal and business risk/opportunity is even rarer and harder to find, (c) adding value in multiple practice areas and legal topics involves constant adaptation and knowledge sharpening, and (d) offering “legally informed strategic advice” leads to better decisions.

Below are a few questions we ask ourselves and our clients to tune us for the task at hand:

  1. What is the context surrounding the issue we’re discussing?  Risk and opportunity do not present in a vacuum. Broader issues are at play. Are you facing a business cliff, or massive strategic opportunity? Is your back against a wall and you need this deal to go through? Are key relationships at stake and worth compromising to preserve? How is the business doing, overall?
  2. From what position are we starting?  Are we being asked to create a template that will scale up with a new offering? Are comparable transactional templates available? Are we able to red-line a draft from the counter-party? Different starting points present different cost structures and timelines.
  3. What are your high level concerns and objectives? This may seem obvious, however, I’m still surprised how seldom counsel checks in with the client to understand key concerns. Clients are most knowledgeable of the broader context, their own business and the dynamics of the negotiation. Without this information, the attorney is flying without instruments.
  4. Where are we in the negotiation timeline?  I like to ask this question as follows: “Are you asking me for an 11th hour review?” In other words, are we pulling up to the closing table and just looking out for major deal-breakers or red flags? Are we trying to raise awareness but we understand we’ll have little opportunity to request changes…at least not without jeopardizing the deal? This question fundamentally helps the attorney understand what, if any, bargaining leverage we have in requesting changes in a red-line. It’s a pet peeve of mine when an attorney red-lines each and every section of an agreement as if on a quest for technical and substantive perfection…one-party optimization.  This just does not reflect a balanced or real-world understanding of business negotiation. Parties interested in consummating a deal both give and take. It is the balance of compromise between the parties that determines how healthy a deal is and how likely both sides are to remain committed to it. I’ve seen time and again when a document replete with red-line edits grinds a negotiation to a halt, often over details that are esoteric and even academic to the parties business interests.
  5. Similar to the last question, are we “papering” an agreement already reached, or are we carving a statue from raw stone? In other words, have all material terms been discussed and negotiated by the parties or are we proposing terms for the negotiation that follows? The answer to this question fundamentally and significantly impacts how the attorney approaches her task and her perspective. Attempting to propose new terms in a negotiation that simply needs to be documented can lead to the breakdown of a negotiation. I’ve seen parties allege bad faith when the attorney for one party unwittingly raised new concerns and terms when the parties thought they had negotiated the 4 corners of the deal.

As always, clear documents support productive relationships. Good documents require clear, consistent and engaged communication between client and attorney. Clear strategic advice requires consistent communication even more so . Both sides need to develop trust between one another.  It’s neither an efficient use of client dollars, nor a good use of an attorney’s time to fly blind in supporting a client transaction. Offering value-add legal services requires that the attorney be kept in the loop and privy to the direct and indirect factors that influence negotiations.