Tuesday, March 10, 2015
Today in my Energy Law Seminar, I sprung an exercise on my class. I gave each member of the class a confidentiality and non-disclosure agreement (NDA). Half the class works for a venture fund and the other half works for a technology inventor who was seeking investment. (I give them some more details about the proposed deal the NDA would help facilitate. (The exercise is based on an issue I worked on some years ago.)
I instruct them to read the NDA, then they can meet with others assigned the same side. They can come up with their negotiating points, then I turn them loose with the other side.
I always enjoy watching students work like this. They are forced to react, and it lets them be a little creative. I also like this exercise, because it has multiple layers. They get to ask me me what they need to know for the business points, and I later get to talk to them about the options they may not have considered.
I have done this a few times, and the students always negotiate what they see as the key issues. Their issue spotting is usually good, but they often miss a big option (a couple students do often have an idea what's up). Here's the twist: the NDA I give them is absurdly one-sided and in fact reserves the secret information for the venture fund (who is only providing money), and not the inventor (who has the technology and information they want kept secret).
They can, of course, negotiate with this document and try to get a workable NDA based on the deal points, but the better answer for the investor representatives is to decline the entire document. The NDA is so one sided, there is no fixing it. The better answer is to ask for a more balanced version or to offer to draft one for the potential counterparty to consider.
Sometimes, of course, you have no room for negotiations, such as when you rent a car. You can mark up the contract, but with Avis, it's take it or leave it. The same can be true for certain clients who need funding or a supply contract, but often, there is room to talk. The real life version of the negotiation provides a perfect example: I told the venture fund the NDA was too one-sided and that it couldn't work for us. I suggested that we could try a draft or that we'd be happy to look at a different option. The venture fund's reply: "Oh sure, we have one that is far more balanced that doesn't have the provisions that seem to concern you most. You'll have an email in a few minutes."
When we talk about deal points and key issues, sometimes it's easy to forget to teach students some other big keys to business law. The takeaways:
(1) If at all possible, only use draft documents that reflect a sense of mutuality (e.g., reciprocal indemnification clauses). "Fixing" one-sided documents is fraught with risk.
(2) Don't be afraid to ask. Often, though I don't care for it, people like to start with offers to "see what I can get." (I see this as counterproductive, at least where a long-term relationship could be built.)
(3) Negotiate in proportion to the issue before you. The NDA is often so you can negotiate the deal. If you make that initial part too antagonistic, you may never even get to negotiating the actual deal, which can mean everyone loses.