May 6, 2009

First Drafts: On the Two Yard Line or Closer to Midfield?

– by John Jenkins, Calfee Halter & Griswold

A few months ago, our law firm had one of its periodic training sessions for our associate attorneys. The topic for this particular session was making the transition from junior associate to seasoned business lawyer, and the presenters were two investment bankers from one of our firm’s clients.

Lawyers have an obligation to zealously represent clients and protect their legal interests in a transaction, and that may cause lawyers to butt heads with bankers from time to time. But when bankers speak about the things lawyers do that drive them nuts or impress the heck out of them, it’s worth listening to them, because I think you can pretty much count on their position being consistent with that of the typical corporate client.

After all, when it comes to what an M&A client wants to accomplish – getting the deal done as quickly and efficiently as possible – there’s nobody in the transaction whose interests are more closely aligned with the client’s than its investment banker. That’s because bankers eat what they kill: they only get paid for their efforts if the deal closes.

The bankers who spoke to our associates shared a lot of insights about good and bad lawyering, and I’ll talk about more of them in later posts, but at the very top of their list of bad habits was something that anybody who has worked on a deal has experienced – namely, receiving a first draft of a purchase agreement that is so aggressively one-sided that it’s like starting a drive from your own two yard line.

They pointed out that this bit of grandstanding usually ingratiates you to absolutely nobody, including your own client. The first draft of a deal document sets the tone for the entire transaction. When you start out with one that’s burdensome and oppressive, the recipient’s legal and financial advisors immediately let their client know that the document is over the top. That means that not only does the draft usually get flyspecked, but each succeeding draft, along with just about every request made by the other side during the course of negotiations, gets looked at with a jaundiced eye.

Instead, the bankers suggested that a more balanced first draft is a much better way to approach a deal. If you start out with a document that puts the ball on the 35 yard line, you not only create an atmosphere that suggests your side wants to do business, but ironically, you’ll probably be more successful in your efforts to win on the handful of important deal points that you’ve drafted in your favor. When it comes to doing deals, it’s usually the reasonable people who can get away with murder.

From my perspective, I’ll concede that there are circumstances where it makes sense to be pretty aggressive in documentation. For example, if you’ve got a very hot commodity or a buyer that’s drooling all over the conference room table, then a little documentary boorishness is probably in order. But most deals don’t fall into that category, and most experienced business people don’t view an acquisition or a divestiture as a zero sum game. A first draft that suggests otherwise is usually a bad idea if your client’s primary objective is to get a deal done quickly and efficiently.