Commercial contracts are packed with risks. In fact the contract itself is one big risk. However, ironically, contracts are the safest way to conduct business; we need them! So, since we cannot avoid contracting with each other we have to ensure that we protect our interests in every contract that we sign. A key way to do this, is to ask for an indemnity clause. An indemnity clause is a contractual transfer of risk between two contractual parties to prevent loss (you are not liable if X happens) or to ensure compensation for a loss (the other party reimburses you for any loss suffered if Y happens) which may occur as a result of a specified event (X or Y event). Let’s take a look at some examples of indemnity clauses:
- Basic Indemnities – Party A indemnifies Party B for all liabilities or losses incurred in connection with specified events or circumstances. For example, if you are contracting with a construction company to build your new store, you will want a basic indemnity saying that the construction company will compensate you for all losses if one of its subcontractors fails to do the job to the specification set out in the contract. If a subcontractor tiles the roof poorly, the construction company is liable for all losses ensuing from that subcontractor’s poor job. Pretty good right? However, basic indemnities can be troublesome as they do not set out any specific limitations on the indemnity. They are silent as to whether they indemnify losses arising out of YOUR own acts and/or omissions that cause the subcontractor to tile the roof poorly. What if you give the sub-contractor the wrong instructions or you don’t give the subcontractor access to the site on time? This basic indemnity operates so that the construction company indemnifies you for the poor job of the subcontractor, even if the poor job was your fault. You may be thinking well, that’s great, but it’s only great if you are the party receiving such an indemnity. That’s why basic indemnities should be avoided where possible.
- Proportionate or Limited Indemnities – These indemnities rectify the potential unfairness of a basic indemnity (explained above) as they limit the indemnity. Sticking with the example above, say you obtain an indemnity from the construction company to the effect that the construction company is liable for all losses ensuing from a subcontractor’s poor job – a limited indemnity will go on to state “except those losses incurred as a result of [your] own acts and/or omissions”. If the subcontractor’s poor job is your fault you don’t get compensated. Seems fair.
- Third Party Indemnities – If third parties are involved in the operation of the contract, as in the example above, you may not want anything to do with them since you are contracting with them. Following on from the above example, what happens if a subcontractor isn’t paid for their work? You wouldn’t want to be liable for that. You can protect against this by asking the construction company to indemnify you for all liabilities relating to its subcontractors so that the subcontractors are always the construction company’s issue and not yours.
These are very high level examples which would make most lawyers (if they’re good) chuckle. Indemnities can be very complex and they should at the very least always be more than a basic indemnity. Here are some of the things your lawyer should consider when drafting an indemnity clause for you:
- Scope – The scope of the indemnity must be clear so that the intended protection is given.
- Context – An indemnity clause should always be drafted in consideration of the wider commercial context of the agreement. Is it applicable?
- Extent – Who does the indemnity cover and are there any limitations to the indemnity? If the indemnity is given by the other side but not its contractors or representatives, then the extent to which this offers protection will be limited.
- Insurance: There is no point in having an indemnity if the indemnifier cannot pay out in an event of breach. An obligation to insure to a level consistent with the indemnity obligation will provide comfort that the indemnifier has the means to back up the indemnity given.
- Caps: Indemnities can be capped but any such cap should be subject to careful consideration. Where an indemnity has a financial cap, the indemnified party may, depending on any other limitation clauses, still have an uncapped claim in contract law for any breach of contract.
As with many of my posts, this is a very simplified overview. You really need a lawyer to draft indemnity clauses because they are essentially financial obligations with very serious consequences. The aim of this post is to make you aware of them so that you can ask your lawyer about them. You may want receive indemnities as added protection or you may want to offer indemnities to show the other side that you mean business (they can be great for negotiation)! So go ahead and ask your lawyer about them. Pick up one of your contracts and check to see if you have a few in there already.
I must also emphasise that an indemnity is a distinct right from the right to claim damages for breach of contract. If the construction company breaches a clause in the contract you still have your common law right to sue for damages. Any limitations under an indemnity will be for that indemnity only. This is important because limited indemnities often exclude any loss ensuing from your own negligence whereas a claim for breach of contract can be brought even where you too have been negligent. Ask your lawyer, they’ll break it down for you!
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I’ve been practising law for some time now and one of the things that I have learnt, which was incredibly difficult to learn, is to stand one’s ground. I can now firmly stand my ground with YOU (the client) and the senior lawyers I work under. Why do you care? Well, simply because my confidence as a lawyer saves you money (yup, you know that paper we all want…). There are two scenarios which have played a recurring role in my career to date and these scenarios have taught me to stand my ground. Let’s take a look at them and then I’ll tell you how you can help your lawyers get to the level of confidence I have now (smug face) which should save you money.
Scenario 1 – A client desperately wants to do something that cannot be done but a dedicated lawyer, knowing that it cannot be done, still struggles to find a way. The client wants and the lawyer strives to give BUT it just isn’t possible. This is a rubbish scenario for everyone because the lawyer looks for the source of a myth whilst the client pays unnecessary costs to gain nothing.
Scenario 2 – A junior lawyer (they do all the ground work by the way) doesn’t think that a certain course should be taken but unfortunately the senior lawyer, eager to please the client and incur more fees (money, money money), doesn’t listen. A longer more difficult route is taken. As in scenario 1, the client pays unnecessary costs but to gain something it could have gained more easily and more cheaply.
I used to hate these situations. A junior lawyer pushing back against an experienced, Tom Ford wearing senior lawyer or a great lawyer too client whipped to be frank and say “sorry, this won’t work”. The disappointing feeling I experienced in these scenarios taught me to stand my ground in my profession. I will never lead you on a wild goose chase; if it can’t be done or it can only be done at a cost detrimental to your business, I will tell you and that will be it. If I’m working for a senior lawyer who is putting pressure on me to do A or B when I think C is best, I will throw all my toys out of my pram to get C, only giving up when I have been absolutely convinced that A or B is better. Sounds good right? Here’s how you can help to make sure that your legal team adopts this cost saving mentality…Ask to hear the best and the worst from your legal team AND reassure them that you’re READY to hear the worst. Also, direct your emails at the WHOLE legal team, not just the “front of house” senior lawyers, but the juniors too (those silent names that are cc’ed into every email to make sure that they pick up the work). In doing this you let the senior lawyers know that you value EVERYONE in the team and that at any given time you may ask for the junior’s opinion.
Deploy these tips and see the difference in your service. You should hopefully spend less time chasing dead ends and more time progressing to where you want to be.
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Some of us are not quite at the point of saying goodbye to the salary and entering the world of risk and unpredictability. However, guess what? You don’t have to kick the day job in order to start honing the skills of an entrepreneur. Whilst you are planning your future business, you can start to test your entrepreneurial ability now, at your desk, under the nose of your boss.
- Respond to a request with a suggestion – If you are planning on leaving your day job, it is often because there is something about it, maybe how it is run or what it actually does, that you do not like. SO since you’re planning your exit, why not challenge some of those things that drive you nuts. When asked to negotiate that sale or purchase on the usual terms, suggest a different tactic. If you are asked to, yet again, make that same salad for the Monday customers, suggest changing the ingredients a bit, for example adding a bit of chilli? If you are asked to do the rota for whatever, suggest a change that makes that rota better. Start to challenge the norm. That’s what you do as an entrepreneur right? You see what others do not and you push the boundaries.
- Be yourself – This one is difficult in an office environment or a store where you are reminded daily that it is better to conform than to be yourself. But hey, you’re about to go it alone so you may as well shine and encourage others to shine too. I have a few clients who are unapologetically themselves. They ask you the most direct questions or they decline to come to an event you’re hosting because they, in their words “can’t be bothered with that sort of thing”; I respect these clients. Try to be the person you want to be and see how people respond. Do those under you work harder for you? Do those above you listen more? You can then get a feel for how you will be perceived by others when you are running your own business.
- Get to know everyone – When you eventually go it alone, you’ll need to be a people person. You will need to let everyone know who you are, where you are and what you’re up to. You will need to market yourself. So why not start now? Start marketing who you are. If you’re in a big organisation, go and talk to other teams; pop up to the third floor and say hello to the person you email in accounts every Monday. Basically, start honing your networking skills.
- Say yes – If you are asked to do something new, do not shy away. If it is out of your comfort zone, step up and take the challenge. Sink or swim that’s what you’ll be doing as your own boss with no one to delegate to. You’ll be doing new things daily, from attending events to speaking at events, from negotiating contracts to drafting strategies. Just do it and get used to a) the initial fear and b) the adrenaline once you realise that, whether you’re doing it well or not so well, you are trying and you are learning.
- Ask for help – When you set up on your own it is all about resources. You will be calling in favours and hiring professionals at a competitive price. SO whilst you are still in a day job, get used to asking for help from the people who know how to do what you can’t. If you don’t really know how to use your computer, ask IT for help. If you’ve never been part of a pitch and want to learn, ask a colleague who has done one before. Get used to asking for help, NOW.
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There is a reason why mega successful businesses spend thousands, sometimes millions of pounds/dollars on legal advice. I cannot tell you the number of times that I have almost cried because a client has brought me a problem that could have easily been avoided IF legal advice had been sought in the first place. In the long term, getting proper legal advice could save you so much MONEY and isn’t that what it’s all about – MONEY? You know that saying, what’s worth doing at all is worth doing well…it’s said for a reason! I don’t feel good billing you for my time when it’s for an issue that really shouldn’t have ever become an issue!
Think of it this way, when you have a tooth ache you go to a dentist -you don’t pull out the tooth yourself. When you feel sick you go to a doctor you don’t diagnose yourself. SO, if you need a contract drafted, guess what, you DON’T do it yourself. You go to your lawyer! You should be focusing all your energy into your product/service/idea not struggling to draft a 30 page contract or represent yourself at Court.
So what am I saying? I’m saying be smart BUT don’t cheat.
I am a lawyer and it took me 6 years of training to qualify to be one (a 3 year degree, a 1 year professional practice qualification and a 2 year training contract at an international law firm in the City). You cannot read this blog and become a lawyer BUT you CAN read this blog and become legally smart so that when you seek proper legal advice you are not doing so blindly. You are firing out questions and demanding the best service possible!
It’s quite simple, do things properly at the outset and you will reap the rewards later.
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