William Proctor and James Gamble figured out how to do it in 1837.
Ben Cohen and Jerry Greenfield found out that success could be sweet in 1978.
Larry Page and Sergey Brin started their own brand of digital domination in 1998 before most knew what they were talking about.
Today’s stock market is filled with prosperous corporations that began with a business partnership. Although those who succeed tend to grab the headlines, all the rest fade away.
According to BLS data, 45% of new businesses fail during the first five years and 65% fail during the first ten years.
Hiring an attorney at the onset of a business partnership can dramatically increase your chances of a favorable outcome. Lawyers can help partners decide the best corporate structure and draft documents that will add clarity and resolve disputes to keep the organization moving forward.
Unfortunately, business partnerships that don’t work with a lawyer as their first step bear more uncertainty.
Here are the five most common legal claims that cause business partnerships to fail:
Attorney Alert #1: Breach of Partnership/Operating Agreement
Don’t enter into a business partnership without a written agreement that clarifies many important variables, such as your responsibilities, compensation and exit.
In fact, negotiating the partnership agreement should be part of your process to determine if this company is the best fit for you. The time spent on this dialogue will be invaluable.
For example, how are profits distributed? What happens when one partner doesn’t want to take the distribution in that year? Will you have the right of refusal when your partners bring forward a prospective partner? How will each partner exit without harming the interest of the company?
A thoughtful partnership agreement will go a long way to building stronger relationships—and mitigate one of the most common causes of failure for business partnerships.
Attorney Alert #2: Breach of Fiduciary Duty
Fiduciary duties are included in business partnerships.
The interests of the partnership, for instance, should be held paramount compared to your own self-interests. This is referred to as the Duty of Care. You should also avoid self-dealing situations where you benefit at the expense of your partners—also known as the Duty of Loyalty.
Failing to account for company funds, sharing trade secrets or acts that benefit a competitor are also examples of a breach of fiduciary duty.
In an attempt to mitigate this potential cause for business partnership failure, partners could be required to review their fiduciary duties in writing and sign their names periodically to keep these responsibilities top of mind.
Attorney Alert #3: Failure to Delineate Authority
When partners enter a business venture, it is often assumed that each partner will work an equal amount. And that’s why issues happen.
Andrews Campbell, who published “Collaboration Is Misunderstood and Overused” in the Harvard Business Review, writes that success depends on three circumstances: 1) partners need to be truly committed to working with each other, 2) partners have high respect for each other’s expertise, and 3) each partner has the skill to bargain with each other over cost and benefits.
The last circumstance could be the sole reason to hire an attorney to draft documents to increase the odds that the collaboration will be a success. For instance, each partner should clearly understand their responsibilities as part of operations and the leadership team. Blurred lines will lead to disagreements and a waste of time of redundancies.
A semblance of hierarchy needs to be established so the company can move forward. Delineated authority would ensure that all mission-critical areas are covered by the partners.
Attorney Alert #4: Gross Negligence
Partners are responsible for providing a certain standard of care. When that doesn’t happen and harm is caused, a matter of gross negligence can cause irreparable damage and end the partnership.
Mismanaging partnership funds, failing to abide by contracts and hiring unqualified, key personnel could trigger a claim of gross negligence.
A court would apply the business judgment rule, which is a standard that examines if the action in question was done in good faith with the care of a “reasonably prudent person” and with the understanding the partner is acting in the best interests of the company.
If gross negligence can be proven, unfortunately, it would knock down that level of protection.
Attorney Alert #5: Partnership Abandonment
When a partner decides to leave, it could trigger dissolution almost immediately, depending on the partnership agreement.
However, if the departing partner has not acted in the best interest of the partnership, it could be grounds for a lawsuit.
It may make sense to review the partnership agreement before resentment and business losses kick in. Often, a buy-out option is stated in well-drafted agreements and incorporation papers to lay the groundwork for a soft landing for all parties.
(Joseph M. Pastore III is chairman of Pastore, a law firm that helps corporate and financial services clients find creative solutions to complex legal challenges. He can be reached at (203) 658-8455 or firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Tags: Business Partnership, Joseph Pastore
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