The impossible: force majeure clauses

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Before you read on, please note that this post is not for the faint hearted. This clause is really important in any contract and I’m going to try and give you a full explanation of it.

Force Majeure translates to a “superior or irresistible power” in the beautiful French language.  In English law, it refers to a clause in a contract which protects the parties from their contractual obligations in circumstance where that contract, by no fault ofthe parties, becomes impossible to perform. In such a scenario, the parties will usually have the right to terminate the contract or to suspend the contract, if the impossible circumstances are likely to come to an end within a certain time frame. This is a very useful clause when faced with the effects of acts of God (tornadoes, lightning strikes, floods), governments and regulatory authorities – none of which give a hoot about your contracts!

There are generally three essential elements to an event being determined force majeure:

  • It can occur with or without human intervention.
  • It cannot have reasonably been foreseen by the parties (for example your machine breaking down is foreseeable and so is not a force majeure event).
  • It must have been completely beyond the parties’ control so that they could not have prevented its consequences (for example a riot, like the London riots).

A very basic force majeure clause will look as follows:

A party (affected party) shall not be liable to the other party for any failure to perform the Agreement caused by circumstances outside the reasonable control of the affected party.

What exactly is “circumstances outside the reasonable control of the affected party”? Well the answer is, how long is a piece of string! This is where your lawyer steps in. Over time, lawyers have come up with a list of events which are generally considered to be force majeure events. These events are as follows:

  • Fire, flood or other natural disaster;
  • malicious injury;
  • strikes, lock-outs or other labour troubles;
  • riots;
  • insurrection; and
  • war.

However, please note that the above list is not exhaustive so lawyers have also taken to adding sweep up language to cover anything else that might occur with force majeure characteristics. For example many clauses end their list with “ and any other reason of like nature not the fault of the party in performing the contract”.

The better force majeure clauses oblige the party relying on the force majeure event to do certain things so as to help the contract to survive as far as possible. The relying party must usually promptly notify the other party of the force majeure event. The relying party is then only excused from the contract for the period of the delay caused by the force majeure event. During that time, the relying party must take what steps it can to mitigate the effects of the force majeure event on the contract. In other words, the relying party must do its best to find another way, where possible, to fulfil its contractual obligations. HOWEVER, the period of delay can’t go on forever, so where the force majeure event exceeds a certain timeframe the party entitled to the performance of the relying party may terminate the contract. For example “if any delay exceeds six months, then the party entitled to such performance shall have the option to terminate this Agreement”.  Such force majeure clauses are GRADE A (my own personal labelling)!

Let’s consider an illustration of a GRADE A force majeure clause.

  1. Happy Fruits Ltd and Love Fruits Ltd are in a contract for the sale and purchase of fruits. Happy Fruits Ltd sells fruit to Love Fruits Ltd.
  2. Under the contract, Happy Fruits Ltd must provide Loves Fruits Ltd with a case of tomatoes by X date.
  3. Before X date, a flood occurs making the delivery of the tomatoes impossible.
  4. The contract contains a GRADE A force majeure clause, therefore as soon as Happy Fruits Ltd learns that the flood is preventing the delivery of the tomatoes to Love Fruits Ltd by X date, it must notify Love Fruits Ltd of the flood in writing, stating a “force majeure event”.
  5. Happy Fruits Ltd must then attempt to mitigate the effects of the flood on its delivery to Love Fruits Ltd. For example, it must try to supply the tomatoes to Love Fruits Ltd from another branch not affected by the flood, or from another supplier with similar produce.
  6. If Happy Fruits Ltd cannot mitigate in the manner above, it must at the very least strive to deliver the case of tomatoes at the next available opportunity. So for example, if the flood passes a day after X date and all modes of transport go back to normal, Happy Fruits Ltd must do its best to deliver the tomatoes to Love Fruits Ltd on that date.
  7. If Happy Fruits Ltd fails to deliver at the next available opportunity or to reasonably mitigate against the impact of the flood on its contractual obligations, Love Fruits Ltd could have a claim for damages under the contract. That’s right. Even though the flood has nothing to do with Happy Fruits Ltd, Happy Fruits Ltd may still be on the hook. However, Happy Fruits Ltd only has to do what it can reasonably do. In English law, reasonably is pretty broad and forgiving. This is why this type of force majeure clause is Grade A, it offers just enough protection AND wriggle room to both parties.
  8. If the effects of the flood surpass the force majeure cut off point then Love Fruits Ltd may terminate the contract.

Hopefully you followed that! Basically each and every business contract should have one of these clauses in them! You just never know what might happen out of your control that may prevent you from performing your side of the contract. In such a scenario, you do not want to be contractually liable for anything. In recent years, a new force majeure event has sadly come to the forefront – acts of terrorism, the effects of which are devastating. Get your lawyer to review your contracts to ensure that you are adequately protected.

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Cut it out: the beauty of a severance clause.

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It is said that the law is the fabric of society, without it we would have nothing but unruly human beasts roaming the earth’s surface. However in business, sometimes the law actually gets in the way. Yes you read that right. English law believes in freedom of contract, however there is always a risk that a contractual clause may be invalid or illegal – e.g. it offends against public policy or competition law – often this is the case with non-compete clauses and restrictive covenants (clauses that tell a party what they cannot do). This is why clever lawyers make use of “severance clauses” when drafting contracts.

A severance clause (or severability clause) tries to mitigate the damage that may be caused by the interference of the law in a contract. How does it do this? It ensures that a contract will continue to be enforceable even if one of its terms is found to be illegal, invalid or unenforceable. Severance clauses assist in helping a contract to SURVIVE. Pretty cool right? For example, if a contract for the sale and purchase of various vegetables is suddenly subject to a new law stating that no one can sell or purchase carrots (ridiculous but it’s an example), why should the contract die just because the sale and purchase of carrots is illegal? A severance clause would carve out or sever the ILLEGAL part of the contract and require the parties to continue to perform the remaining LEGAL part of the contract i.e. the selling and purchasing of courgettes (zucchinis), potatoes, aubergines (eggplants), peas and so forth. In other words, business shouldn’t stop if it doesn’t have to stop. This is why a severance clause is simply beautiful.

Let’s look at an example of a basic severance clause:

If a Clause of this Agreement is determined by any court or other competent authority to be unlawful and/or unenforceable, the other Clauses of this Agreement will continue in effect.

The above clause severs the illegal part of the contract. BETTER versions of a severance clause will try to sever as little of the illegal clause as possible. Here is an example:

If any unlawful and/or unenforceable Clause would be lawful or enforceable if part of it were deleted, that part will be deemed to be deleted, and the rest of the Clause will continue in effect (unless that would contradict the clear intention of the parties, in which case the entirety of the relevant Clause will be deemed to be deleted).

Even BETTER severance clauses will give the parties the option to modify or correct the would be severed clause, in order to make it legal. Here is an example:

If any provision or part-provision of this agreement is or becomes invalid, illegal or unenforceable, it shall be deemed modified to the minimum extent necessary to make it valid, legal and enforceable. If such modification is not possible, the relevant provision or part-provision shall be deemed deleted. Any modification to or deletion of a provision or part-provision under this clause shall not affect the validity and enforceability of the rest of this agreement.

If  any provision or part-provision of this agreement is invalid, illegal or unenforceable, the parties shall negotiate in good faith to amend such provision so that, as amended, it is legal, valid and enforceable, and, to the greatest extent possible, achieves the intended commercial result of the original provision.

Severance clauses are usually included in any contract as a boilerplate (standard) clause – however don’t take that for granted. Go check your contracts and flag this magical clause with your lawyer. Get your lawyer to advise you – could your severance clause be better? Do not rely/use the examples in this post, they are EXAMPLES. Your lawyer will draft a robust severance clause tailored to YOU.

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“Hey Joe”….How to… get your point across in negotiation.

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Ok, so I didn’t want to give away this secret BUT this blog is about helping you in the legal world, so I can’t keep this from you! I’m about to tell you the secret of the best lawyers for how to really get your point across at the negotiation table. Now, when I tell you, some of you may laugh and say “but of course!” or “durr, that’s so obvious” but it is amazing how many lawyers just don’t do this and so never really get their client’s points across. You can take this tip and apply it to your day to day negotiation.

The best lawyers start formally but as soon as things heat up, they recognise that it’s time to drop the barriers and get right up and close to the people on the other side of the table. How do they do this? It’s really simple and I feel guilty that I’ve built this up so much but hey, I want you to read this! The best lawyers say “Hey Joe”,  “Hey Sarah”, “Hey Mick”… they switch to a first name basis. Lawyers are renowned for being stuffy and posher than the Queen of England, but the really good ones know that sealing the deal is about getting through to the opposition on a personal level, and the quickest way to do this is to use their name. Not from the outset – we start off with “Our client  is concerned about” or “Our position is that” – but as soon as we see that flicker of mutual understanding we transition to “look Phil, between you and I, they [not client] just want to get this done and they think that [name of company that you are negotiating with] is the best to do it”.

I remember some time ago, it was the run up to Christmas and work was crazy. I was representing a client in a claim against a very stubborn defendant. They didn’t want to agree a Court extension which meant that we would all be working over the Christmas holidays. My client was furious with how unreasonable they were being. Tired of sending letters by email to and fro, I simply picked up the phone and called the Defendant’s lawyer. The conversation went as follows:

Me: Oh hi Barry this is Emma here, how are you doing?

Barry: Fine thanks, crazily busy as I’m sure you are too.

Me: Yup, crazily busy, which leads me to the matter of this Court extension on X case.

Barry: Oh yes, my client’s position is very clear on that.

Me: Well Barry, off the record, Joe Bloggs LTD, doesn’t want the extension to secretly build an even stronger claim, they just want a break this Christmas! They literally want to go offline for at least a week. If we don’t agree this extension, we’ll all be working unnecessarily at one of the best times of the year.  I don’t know about you but I’d quite like to catch up on Suits.

Barry: [laughter]. Yes, I know what you mean, well I’ll see what I can do and get back to you.

Me: That’s great, thanks Barry and good luck with the last minute shopping.

Barry: How did you know? [laughter]

End of call

We ended up agreeing the Court extension and it was a sweet Christmas break! There is power in just getting a little personal and a little real! Try it!

Ps. I have not used real names in this post.

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The bigger picture – selling your business.

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Ok, so it’s great that you’ve got your own business and that you’re doing so well. BUT, the question is do you want to be doing this forever? I don’t think so. If your business isn’t getting passed on to another generation then you’re probably looking to, one day, sell it and make a hefty profit! This post is a heads up about the things you need to be doing NOW, in order to build a product (yes, your business is your product) that sells quickly and at the best price possible. Here are my top tips!

Keep it clean – Your business must not have skeletons in its closet. I’ve said this before. Either you eradicate those skeletons or you confess to them, preferably the former. If you have unpaid bills, taxes or ongoing litigation, your business will not sell or it may sell BUT at a DISCOUNTED price. This is because instead of purchasing a nice shiny product, the buyer is purchasing a whole lot of risk. Risk is financial uncertainty and in business we despise financial uncertainty. We are constantly mitigating against it. So, clean up your business and keep it clean. Carry out your due diligence REGULARLY. Do not neglect complaints from clients or scary regulatory letters. The buyer of your business will carry out its own due diligence and it will be thorough. Would you buy a car without a test drive or seeing under the bonnet? Nope, I didn’t think so.

Show them the money – If you want to sell your business you have to be super transparent with your numbers. Start planning now to make sure that your business has a financial record to attract a good buyer. Maintain a healthy working capital, renegotiate supply contracts and make sure that you are getting the best deals for your business. Also, get on top of your debt. Pay off as many of your loans as possible. Think about what is actually costing your business money. If your business requires a lot of machinery, are you using all of that machinery? Can you sell some of it? Don’t forget your forecasts – get them ready and back them up with evidence.

Create and implement a business manual – It is amazing how many of my clients do not have systems and procedures for the simplest of things to do with the day to day operation of their business. If you sell products worldwide, you should not be selling those products on ad hoc procedures. You should have a clear process that the buyer of your business can step into tomorrow and operate. You should have systems in place for every aspect of your business. You should have formalised documents. Get your lawyer to draft standard form employee contracts, terms and conditions, disclaimers, policies etc. Also, is the structure and ownership of the company clear? Make the ownership as clear and as transparent as possible.

Show them your A team – Behind every great business is a strong and passionate management team. Your management team is a big part of your business’ valuation. It is therefore crucial that you consider if your business can retain good employees – this may require considered incentives. The buyer of your business will want all your key people to be a part of the sale. It will also want the assurance that your business is not a DIY job; show off your professional support. Your lawyer, your accountant, your consultant all make an impression. Those relationships matter because they instil confidence in the buyer that everything to do with your business has been done properly. Also seek advice from your A team. What do they think? Get your lawyer to review your business structure and advise you as to whether you need to change it in order for it to be an attractive purchase. Your lawyer will take you through the whole process and organise all of the legal paperwork to ensure that there are no unnecessary complications before and after the sale. You really need everyone on board advising. I have worked on an international acquisition where the whole deal was restructured because of tax. It was cheaper to do it another way! Three days before closing we had to change everything!

You may be far off from selling your business at this point in time, but if you want a big pay out someday, you should start doing all of the above now!

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How to… speed sign low value contracts.

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Right, this goes against my lawyer instincts because in my opinion you should always read everything you sign, in as much detail as possible. However, if you genuinely do not have the time and it is a considerably low risk document (so not worth a million pounds/dollars), then here are three things to do before you sign which will alert you of any potential risks and give you some protection going forwards.

  1. Exclusion and limitation clauses – Look for these types of clauses or ask outright if there is such a clause in what you are signing (get them to refer you to it so you can check their honesty). This will list or summarise everything that the contract/document does not include and what the other party is not liable for. The best example of a document riddled with such clauses, is an insurance policy. When you sign an insurance policy, it is important that it covers what you want and one of the quickest ways to confirm this, is to take a quick look at what is excluded. For example Billy asks Janet for an insurance policy for his car. Janet gives him an insurance policy for his car. Billy is in a hurry for a meeting and trusts that he has been given a policy to insure his car, HOWEVER he flicks to the exclusion clause and sees that the policy does not cover RED cars. Billy’s car is maroon, so, arguably red. Billy takes this up with Janet. Janet amends the policy for Billy so that the operative clause clearly states that Billy’s maroon (and therefore not red) car is covered. Always check what a contract expressly excludes.  If it excludes accidental damage and you need it to cover all damage then obviously you are not signing. Another example would be a limitation of liability clause, often found in services contracts. Say for example you hire a professional polisher to polish your silver worth £3,000 but the contract of hire states that liability for any damage arising out of the contract at the fault of the professional polisher, is limited to £500 only. Obviously, you are not going to sign. Who’s going to pay for the remaining £2,500 worth of damage? Always check how liability of the other party is limited. If you sign a contract with a rubbish liability clause, that’s your fault.
  2. Payment provisions – Always check that the numbers are what you agreed. An extra zero here, a missing discount there is BAD for business. If you have agreed a specific discount just take that second to double check that it is expressly in the contract. DO NOT worry if the other party finds it offensive that you are checking, they will respect you for it. Even if my best friend gave me a contract to sign, I would check it right before their very eyes! Also, what happens if you pay late or you have a dispute with a charge? What does the contract say about that? Checking this clause or asking directly about this clause (then getting them to refer you to it specifically) will ensure that the most important thing of all, money, is properly accounted for!
  3. Termination – Imagine your face when you try to switch suppliers and you find that you have signed an indefinite contract! That’s a worst case, silly scenario but hopefully it highlights how important it is to know how to get out of a contract before you sign it (I’ve said this before). Business is unpredictable and you may need to get out of a contract really fast – knowing the termination provisions at the outset can help you to consider all possible scenarios in which you may want to terminate the contract early and therefore judge whether the contract in question is one you want to sign or amend.

I have to also add the obvious cautions, check who you are contracting with. If you are doing business with Joe Blogs Plc make sure it says Joe Bloggs Plc and not Joe Bloggs Ltd. Also, don’t forget the dates, it will take no time at all to make sure the document is dated correctly. Again, these are just TIPS for those of you ALREADY signing standard contracts without checking ANYTHING. If you are one of these people, at least check the above three things or else suffer the consequences. Once you sign a commercial contract, there is very little anyone can do for you if it turns out to be a bad deal. The Courts have no sympathy for business to business contracts because both parties are considered sophisticated.

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Do you need a break?

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When you’re running an up and coming business, costs are always on your mind. The less costs you have, the more profit you can make. So what do you do? You look for savings, HOWEVER, one of the biggest overheads of any business, often gets overlooked; RENT. In the UK most businesses rent their premises from a landlord as tenants under a lease. When the market was booming (pre-credit crunch) landlords had the upper hand setting high rents and long leases however in today’s challenging economic climate, landlords and tenants have found that long leases and high rents are no longer sustainable; there needs to be a compromise. This is why most commercial leases contain a BREAK clause which enables either the landlord or the tenant or BOTH to end the lease early and seek better terms elsewhere.

How does it work?

Say for example, you own a restaurant. You have a three year lease. In year one, business is booming however in year two, it’s not doing so well because the government has got rid of a big housing estate next door causing footfall to significantly decrease. You still have to pay your rent which in year one, was a piece of cake but now in year two, is a massive burden. You review your lease agreement but ALAS you’re locked in until the end of year 3. You go to the bank to apply for a loan. Whilst doing this you spot a great  empty space in a shopping centre round the corner. You know that your business would thrive there. You review your lease again, alas,  NOTHING HAS CHANGED, you’re STILL locked in until the end of year 3.

In the above scenario, not having a break clause in your lease prohibits you from getting out of a high rent deal in a poor area for your business. Your overheads increase and your profits decrease. Let’s look at this scenario WITH a break clause.

You have a three year lease. As soon as business starts to fail in year two you begin to review your options. You look closely at your lease agreement and to your joy you see that you have a break clause that kicks in after 18 months. You serve a notice to your landlord in accordance with the lease agreement, notifying him that you want to end your lease early. Your landlord accepts and at 18 months you move out of the premises and into the space that you spotted in the shopping centre. HAPPY DAYS.

Can you see the benefits for your business in having a break clause? It gives you some leeway to reassess one of your business’ biggest expenditures. In some circumstances where the location and premises still suit your business needs but the rent is just too high notifying your landlord that you are thinking of sending a notice to activate your break clause could help to bring your landlord to the negotiation table and agree a more sustainable rent. Landlords are business people too and what they value more than anything else is reliable tenants. However, as with everything in law (and that’s why you need a lawyer) there is more to it than just having a break clause and sending a notice. Here are a few considerations to bear in mind:

  1. Form and Service of Notice – You must comply exactly with method and form of service of a notice to exercise a break clause. Also once the notice has been served, it cannot be withdrawn. If the notice complies, you WILL be moving out so consider it seriously.
  2. Timing – It is important when drafting and negotiating the break clause that it is clear when the break date is and what the required notice period is. A break clause may occur on one or more specified dates or be exercisable after a specific period of time has elapsed. Your lawyer can help you work out what works for your business. Landlords usually never want to lose a tenant so they will hold you to strict compliance with the break clause notice provisions; the best thing is to diarise them so that you always have them on your radar and  consider them well in advance.
  3. Break conditions – These conditions must be strictly adhered to. If these pre-conditions are not complied with, your break notice may not be accepted. The most common pre-condition is that all rents due under the lease must have been paid. You must make sure that your lawyer negotiates this condition carefully. A lot of money is wasted in court where it is not clear whether a tenant has to pay a full quarter’s rent or just the apportioned rent up to the date of the break clause. There have been instances where a tenant has had to pay the full rent with no refund. Another pre-condition is that the tenant must give up vacant possession meaning the premises should be EMPTY. Take all your stuff and go.

So do you need a break? Yes! Make sure that you are always giving your business options and do NOT forget to use them.

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How your business can help the world.

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Ok so what does business facilitate unintentionally, every day that can assist in breaking down barriers, prejudices, discrimination etc in one swift swoop…they bring PEOPLE, all kinds of crazy, different people together! Admittedly the intention isn’t initially to get everyone to hold hands and appreciate their various differences but it certainly ends up that way. You see in our common quest to make money, we end up fostering relationships with everyone and anyone because money doesn’t care about gender, sexual orientation, faith or race and that’s THAT. Anyone can make it.

Manufacturers and suppliers are all over the world, we drop an email to China, New York or London with a click. If there is a big event in our industry, we doll ourselves up and go and meet the cool kids with eager hand shakes and smiles of “give me your business“. In business, we don’t care whether your hand is black or white, if you are paying we will shake it and if you are talented we will hold it. Take McDonalds for example, there is a restaurant in pretty much every country with an airport. I’ll never forget the joy of seeing those golden arches after almost 3 months of eating spicy food (delicious as it was) for breakfast, lunch and dinner in beautiful India. I ate three McChicken sandwiches in one go at a familiar table, in a familiar decor and with a familiar service, nevertheless they also had masala fries and tandoori nuggets; amazing. McDonalds know that DIVERSITY and CULTURE is good for business.

Even the legal industry in the UK has recognised this. Traditionally pale, stale and male with degrees from Oxbridge only, the English legal profession is now more diverse than ever. In fact, globally, major law firms are continuously expanding all over the world, recruiting from oversees and right round the corner. Just go on to the website of Clifford Chance, Norton Rose Fulbright or Linklaters and have fun clicking on the sites of their many global offices. Even the ordinary pop star knows that culture and diversity pay, if you ever meet Beyonce, ask her where she HASN’T performed or Justin Bieber how many endorsements he has done in Japan! Ok you get it, but how does this HELP?

You see, in recognising that diversity and cultural awareness is good for business you help the world to stay connected and to integrate. Entrepreneurs, businesses and startups are key tools in building a community of human beings and not a community of “us and them” which politicians love to exploit. Imagine how much more we can achieve if we actively encouraged diversity and it wasn’t just a by product money making. If you own a restaurant and your beef suppliers are a farm in Scotland, a work trip to Scotland could really encourage relationships and mutual understanding. Or if you manufacture your clothes in China, going over and seeing with your own eyes, the place where your stock begins could encourage your Chinese team and also enlighten you to improving conditions for workers over there (this is an issue for another post on another blog). I’m sure this can all be put more elegantly but you get the gist right. I did a post on Corporate Responsibility which touched upon this BUT this post isn’t about your branding or your promotion its about YOU consciously making your company an educator to its employees and a friend to its customers; that’s how your business can help the world.

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HOW TO … chase debts!

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The most important thing when you own your own business is ensuring that you get PAID. Late payments and outstanding debts disrupt cash flow which can literally kill a business. This post is all about a) preventing late payment and b) chasing up late payment. The goal should always be to never have clients owing you BUT if they do, as they occasionally will, it’s all about getting that debt settled as amicably as possible.

Prevention

Ideally you do not want to be chasing up a late payment therefore prevention is better than cure. You can protect your cash flow by making it extremely difficult for a client to make a late payment. You basically need to be honest and upfront at the outset, so that there can be no doubt as to what you are expecting to be paid and by when.  Take note of the following tips:

  1. Make sure that your clients know and understand your payment terms. Display your terms clearly in every invoice and explain how (“payment can be made by BACS transfer/SWIFT/Paypal etc”) and when (“payment is due by X date”) payment should be made. The idea is to make it as EASY as possible for your clients to pay you. You should also include information as to any late payment penalties i.e. “if your payment is more than one day late we will charge interest at a daily rate of X%”. If I know you are going to charge me interest at a daily rate of X%, I’m most likely to pay you on time. The invoice should be a one stop shop of how and when to pay, and the consequences for late payment. This is the basic starting point to getting paid and preventing client debt. If your invoices do not do this, REVISE them.
  2. Double check the details.  Your invoice details should be perfect, quoting all the information the customer needs to identify it. Include your reference code and THEIR reference code. Give a good description of the work/product that the invoice relates to. You do not want a late payment to be YOUR fault so just make sure that all the details are correct.
  3. Send your invoices out promptly. If you want your clients to pay you on time, you better invoice them on time. If you invoice me a day or week late, I’ll take that to mean that I can pay you a day or week late and then some!
  4. Do some credit checks. You should credit check all new significant clients as part of your due diligence (due what? read this), but proceed with caution. A client may be new and have no credit history, or they might have done really well in the past five years but are now on the verge of going bust. Carry out your general due diligence and use your judgment – is it likely that this company/person can afford my services/product?
  5. Make them pay a deposit. The deposit method of payment is great for damage limitation with late paying clients. If you are going to ask for deposits, make the booking of your product or services conditional upon receipt of the deposit payment up front. No deposit, no deal. After a certain point in time make that deposit non-refundable too.  The deposit provisions should be stated in the actual contractual agreement between the parties as the deposit happens at the start BEFORE the invoice which is issued after the provision of the services or product.

Chasing for payment

No business is perfect. Even your best clients can let invoices become overdue. Chasing and securing payment of an overdue invoice is a fine art in the world of business as you never want to offend a client. However, your company is entitled to the money, so don’t shy away from collecting what is due to you. Even charities hound their loyal supporters for donations!  At this point, it is all about having a uniform procedure based on a series of gradually more urgent reminders, followed by putting the matter in the hands of a debt-collector or solicitor if all else fails (absolute last resort). Here are some tips:

  1. Know when your invoices are overdue and act immediately. In some industries it is easier and more acceptable to just pick up the phone and ask “hey where’s my money?”. However if you are dealing with a new client or are operating within a more formal industry, you should write a letter of reminder stating (politely but firmly) that your invoice is now overdue and please make immediate payment. You should send this letter by email or fax followed by a hard copy in the post. This way you get the reminder to the forgetful client asap whilst providing them with a hard copy for their records. I would recommend a  letter of reminder regardless of industry norms because I’m a cautious lawyer and I believe in leaving paper trails in instances like this. In order for your reminder to have an impact, it needs to be prompt so keep a calendar of all invoice due dates and keep an eye on them. Send your reminder the day after late payment or your company’s grace period. Allow seven days for a reply.
  2. If there is no reply within seven days, send the invoice again. Send it by recorded delivery to ensure it has been received and keep your receipt as evidence that you sent it.
  3. If you still do not receive a response, make a phone call to find out what the problem is. Your client may have accounting issues or queries that it needs help with. Find out the reason for the non-payment and help them out. Negotiate if you have to and try to extract a promise of payment.  ALSO use this phone call to find out if the customer has a regular weekly or monthly pay run and find out the day on which this is done. Keep calling until you receive payment, especially two or three days before the pay run. This is where chasing payment becomes a fine art. You need to tread a fine line between harassing the client too much and keeping the pressure up. It’s best to keep up a persistent chase! “Hey Bob How are you? Pay me please”, “Hey Sheila, I’m great thanks. Spoke to Bob the other day…pay me please”.
  4. If the pay run date passes and you still do not receive payment, consider turning up in person to collect it. Of course this is not desirable and it is not even possible in some instances. This is the last resort before the ABSOLUTE last resort.
  5. If you have tried all of the above steps and you have still not received payment, you need to consult your lawyer. There is nothing like a letter from a lawyer to scare the crap out of a client. The letter should threaten to take legal action to recover the debt or to start bankruptcy or winding-up proceedings (depending on how much you are owed, in the UK, you can end a company if they haven’t paid you – read this). The letter could also threaten to use a debt collection agency. Keep a copy of all correspondence and accept that if you are at this stage, you have lost that client forever. Not so bad as a client is only worth it if they value you and they show that they value you when they PAY you.

The legal/debt collector route is your absolute last resort, but don’t be afraid to use it. However if you get to this stage, ask your solicitor’s advice and evaluate how far you should sensibly go to collect the debt before cutting your losses.

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Do you really care about your business? 

Sounds like a silly question right? But do you? You DO. Oh that’s great. Perfect. Then you must have a lawyer! At this point some of you are saying yes and some of you are saying no but in my opinion you should all be saying YES!!

Getting a lawyer at the outset does three magic things:

  1. Prevents catastrophic errors happening – for example signing contracts that are cleverly designed to steal your product, intellectual property or your profits, and ensuring that your business is compliant. The truth is that when you have an amazing business, everybody will want to be involved in it. When you’re just starting out, whether you like it or not, you are easy prey. The bigger businesses, the more experienced investors WILL try and get much more for their money. A lawyer will identify this and protect YOU. And what about non-compliance? Well non-compliance is costing Volkswagen a potential $17billion. They only set aside $6billion to deal with this. This is a perfect example of the consequences for breach of the laws and regulations in your industry. The law will collect payment for breach and it doesn’t care if it kills your business in doing so. A lawyer will highlight these risks to you.
  2. Speeds up the growth of your business – yes having a lawyer actually speeds up the growth of your business because you are letting the pros do what the pros do best allowing you to FOCUS on enhancing your business in the way that you know best! Everything that you need in order to be legally functioning, just happens without YOU spending precious management time trying to do it yourself. NOW you are probably thinking, hey, you always say BE LEGALLY SMART.. yes I do and a part of being legally smart is NOT trying to be a lawyer. Legally smart is about being informed so that you can give clever, well thought out instructions to your lawyer so that you do not suffer at the hand of the billable hour… “Yes the fee is high because I had to look into  X and Y and Z” compared with “No problem, I can do that for you…how long? I can get a draft to you by close of business today”.
  3. Gets you a great bargain in the long term – the client/lawyer relationship is a precious one. It is one of trust and mutual respect. What most clients ought to realise however is that lawyers take the work of their clients PERSONALLY. Once you have given a few instructions, growing THEIR business, lawyers respond in kind, prioritising YOUR business, offering free services, offering discounted rates. Looking out for you without being prompted. This is the ultimate goal for any business, to have an established relationship with a law firm because that’s when the fees get cheaper!

Ok, so some of you will literally just be starting out and you cannot afford a lawyer, in that instance there are many things you can do. If you are confident in your product/service, approach a law firm you like the look of and that you envisage you should be able to afford in about 6 months’ time and ask them if they would be interested in assisting you with a few starter contracts/services pro bono (meaning free). Pitch your business to them, explain that you like their work and can see a genuine client/lawyer relationship developing. Some law firms will show you the door but others, and I’d be one of them, would be intrigued and would do you that favour. Alternatively there are lots of firms that offer start up packages and individual standard form contracts that you can purchase and adapt. This is the next best thing to having a lawyer as such contracts are usually drafted to include key provisions. However this option should not be a long term circumstance. If you are serious about your business, your goal should always be to have a lawyer, eventually a team of lawyers protecting and enhancing your business albeit guided by YOU, the LEGALLY SMART one.

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Essential Contracts: An Overview

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Right so you’ve set up a business. Great! HOWEVER, don’t pat yourself on the back just yet. You need to ensure that you are legally ready to actually start FUNCTIONING as a business. So what am I talking about? I’m talking about those ESSENTIAL CONTRACTS that you should have READY at your fingertips so that you don’t a) look like an amateur (even though you may actually be an amateur) b) fall prey to the lawyers for the other side (if they present you with their standard contracts first, they MAY get the upper hand…depends on whether you’re legally smart or not) or C) miss out on fantastic opportunities because you don’t have the necessary documents ready and rearing to go.

There are many standard contracts a company should have depending on the industry within which the company operates. However here is a list of contracts that are applicable to all industries.

1. Shareholder Agreements

In the UK, if you are setting up a limited company, you will need a Shareholder Agreement. This contract regulates the dealings between the shareholders of the company. It sets out who owns what and who can vote and make decisions on what. It also sets out what particular shareholders cannot do. It effectively contains the framework for operating the company. This document should be drafted and agreed by all shareholders of a company at the outset. NEVER assume that just because you are friends or respectable members of society that things will not, one day, get ugly (this is business we’re talking about). A shareholder agreement protects every one.

2. Investor Agreements

Money, money, money…MONEY! If somebody is investing or loaning money to your company they will want to see the terms written down….SIMPLE. If you don’t have a standard form of this document ready for negotiation, you could run the risk of not being taken seriously and missing out on a great opportunity to gain capital for your business. An investor will want to know specific things and they will want to see these specific things neatly set out in concrete. What shares do they get? What is the value of those shares? Will those shares get diluted if more money comes in? What control do they get? What are the procedures for running the company? What is an exit for the investor if they want out? Setting these terms out clearly also protects YOU.

3. Website Terms and Conditions

Do you have a website? Of course you DO. You’re not living in the stone age BUT did you know that you cannot just have a website, you need a collection of documents covering the way that the website is run. Consumers/clients/customers need to see your policies on data, privacy, cookies and cancellation. Make sure you draft Terms and Conditions that are bespoke to your company. DO NOT copy and paste from another company’s Terms and Conditions – something in the small print WILL come back to bite you later. Instead, think about what terms you need in place that are relevant to what you offer and to how you run your business for example “this company operates on a 12 day cooling off period, if you change your mind within 12 days of ordering, we will cancel the contract, no strings attached” or “bookings are only confirmed upon receipt of a confirmation email from our head office”.

4. Non-Disclosure Agreements

Your business is your secret. Everything from your trademarks, patents, copyright, software, recipes, formulas, processes, financial information and so forth is your business IDENTITY. Don’t make it easy for people to steal your identity. This is what makes you unique – McDonalds, Apple, Nintendo! Before prospective investors, trade partners and purchasers will deal with you, they often need to know more about you – a Non-Disclosure Agreement offers you some protection in relation to the information that you disclose. It is a deterrent against breach of confidentiality by the other party. If they breach it, you can take them to court and sue them for virtually all damage ensuing from that breach…the price to pay could be very costly, consequently, they won’t want to breach it and your business identity is SAFE.

5. Employment or Consulting Agreements

If you have employees or consultants, you need a document that clearly sets out your relationship. There are many considerations that you as an employer will need to consider and set out clearly in line with the law. For example the process of terminating the contract, dealing with employee data, dealing with disciplinary matters, and (currently at the fore front in the UK) employee pension rights. Additionally, considerations such as wages, bonuses, working hours, holiday, sick pay, shares etc. all need to be addressed and codified somewhere clearly. This is where you really need a lawyer. There are some benefits to engaging contractors over employees (basically that you are not responsible for them) BUT just because you label someone a contractor does NOT mean that they are LEGALLY a CONTRACTOR. If they are working full time and only for you, tax and the law may classify them as an employee. So again YOU NEED A LAWYER HERE.

So there you have it. This is NOT a comprehensive list BUT it is a very good start. If you operate in another jurisdiction, such as the USA or Singapore or Dubai, the above themes and considerations are pretty universal save for any legal particulars. So go and put your house in order. You can actually buy most of the templates to the above agreements online HOWEVER whilst you can certainly make a start on them ALWAYS get a lawyer to give them at LEAST the once over, remember these documents are ESSENTIAL so you kind of want to get them right.

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