Lawyer Stuff 101 – What Does a Business Lawyer Do?

This is the second in my series of articles on how you, a business owner, can use your lawyer most effectively. The most frequent conversation I have when meeting with new clients is to explain the role of the lawyer in advising a business. Many have never worked with a lawyer before, or worked with one in a different area. Why are we useful, and what the hell do we actually do that adds value to your business? Once you know what we do, it’s much easier to use us effectively – saving you time, money, and heartache as your company evolves.

A lawyer’s job is to help businesses to understand and manage risk. Full stop.

On Risk

Most entrepreneurs are going into business because they have a great idea – a product or service that they believe they can sell. The act of going into business is risky in and of itself. You’re putting your time, money, reputation, and relationships on the line. The business world is a scary place, especially when you’re the small fish in the pond. Your competitors are constantly working to out-manoeuvre you. Your employees, contractors, investors, customers and suppliers have expectations and problems of their own. The tax man knocks on your loudly and frequently. There’s a maze of regulations to navigate.

Many of those risks are sight unseen for entrepreneurs. Some manage to bob and weave through them by chance, blissfully unaware of close calls. Often in a first meeting I have the unpleasant task of lifting the veil, and giving them a peek at the troubled waters they’re sailing in. Sometimes the business owner walks away with more worries on their mind than they came with. It’s not a fun realization for them, and it’s my least favourite part of the job. It is, however, reality.

The risks exist whether you realize they do or not. Would you rather not know, and be blindsided when something happens, or understand where the risks lie, what the potential consequences are, and be able to make plans to avoid them and minimize their effect on your business?

Keep your head in the sand if you like, but Stats Canada has found that 20% of startup businesses fail within the first year, and 50% don’t survive three years. The businesses that succeed tend to have sound legal and accounting advice from an early stage. If you have sound advice, and the business still fails, you’ll likely end up on more stable ground afterwards – with your personal assets, reputation, and relationships relatively intact.

Lawyers help businesses to manage risk in three main ways:

  • Advising on sound business practices
  • Advising on appropriate legal structures and relationships, and
  • Advising when insurance is wise

Each of these risk management techniques ties in with the others. I’ll talk about each in turn.

Sound Business Practices

The most common, cheapest, and often most effective is to cover your own ass by doing business the right way. Most of these don’t need a lawyer to dream up or implement.

The most common business disputes are about differences between what was promised and what was delivered, billing and payment disputes, employer-employee relationships, and on-premises injuries. Businesses frequently deal with Consumer Protection Act, employee safety, and harassment and Human Rights Code complaints. Complying with government regulation – such as licensing, zoning, Building Code, Fire Code, access for disabled persons, anti-spam, import/export rules, and tax are also sources of friction and risk. It can be a lot to deal with, but there are a few habits that’ll make life easier for you:

  • Do your reading. There is a ton of information out there from government websites, regulatory bodies, accountant and lawyer’s blogs, insurance companies, incubators, entrepreneur groups, and industry publications. Read it all. A responsible business owner knows what laws and regulations govern their industry, and what they need to do to colour between the lines.
  • Put it in writing. If there’s a dispute, what actually happened doesn’t matter – only what can be proved. Written records are more convincing than memory. If you do business over the phone or face to face, keep notes and send a follow up email summarizing what was said and agreed upon. Put employee job descriptions in writing.
  • Keep everything. Having things in writing is useless if you delete it too soon. The limitation period (meaning, the amount of time someone has to bring a lawsuit) in Ontario is two years after the problem is discovered. Do the math, and figure out how long to keep the records after dealing with someone. An IT nerd can burn years and years of data to DVD for you if storage space is an issue.
  • Don’t over-promise. Sometimes the pressure to make a sale can be immense, especially in the cash-poor early days of a business. It’s hard enough to keep people happy even when you do what you say. If you over-promise and under-deliver, or take on work you’re not equipped to do, it’ll come back to bite you in the end. The rear end…
  • Have policies in place. Especially if you have people working for you. There are tons of free resources from the Ministry of Labour, and HR professionals that can get you started. It’s wise to bounce these off your lawyer to make sure they’re current.

As your company grows, your lawyer and other advisors can help to flesh out the practices and policies in a way that suits your business.

Legal Structures

Here’s where I come in. While business practices are a good start, there’s no substitute for on-point legal advice to help minimize business risk. Legal advice costs money, and if you’re in the habit of seeking it before acting, you may wonder what the actual value added to your business is. Legal advice is a bit like bear repellent – the only way you know it’s working is that there are fewer bears around… but if a bear shows up on your doorstep with a lawsuit, the value becomes much more clear. Maybe I went too far with this analogy… I digress…

Sadly, much of what I do is work to clean up my clients’ self-inflicted messes. They try to save money on legal fees by trying to be their own lawyer. Sometimes the damage is irreparable. I’ve watched businesses go down in flames because of vague, improperly drafted contracts. I’ve seen clients held hostage by independent contractors because they didn’t put anything in writing before work started. I’ve seen people’s businesses stolen out from under them because they didn’t think independent legal advice was worthwhile. Even when the business is salvageable, they often end up spending two or three times as much to fix the problem than they would have on legal advice in the first place.

The business lawyer’s role usually falls in one of three categories:

  • Internal relationships. Clearly setting out the roles, responsibilities, and expectations between the founders of the business is essential. Sooner is better – ideally before the business starts to make (or lose) money. No matter what the form of business is, and no matter how good the intentions are at the start, as soon as money is involved, people’s recollection of the deal and expectations can change in a hurry. A house divided against itself cannot stand.
  • The back end of the business. Not only should your business structure make sense from a tax perspective, it should protect the founders, and facilitate long-term growth as much as possible. There are several forms of business available, each with their benefits and obligations. Choosing the right one, and keeping it in good standing with the government and other regulators is critical. Lawyers know what records need to be kept, and what approvals must be secured before taking certain actions. Investors and potential buyers will want to see that the proper decision-making processes were followed in running the company.
  • External relationships. Customers, suppliers, employees, investors, creditors, partners, joint-venturers, government, regulators, landlords, tenants, neighbours, industry associations, and advisors will all be looking out primarily for their own interests, as you should be for yours. Contracts are useful to set out what’s expected of each party, which I covered in detail in an earlier blog. Call your lawyer before trying to enter, break, or change a contract. You may also need help understanding what regulations apply to your business, and help you to colour between those lines.

Insurance

I’m no expert in insurance – my knowledge is limited to knowing when to recommend when it might be appropriate, and how it fits into your overall risk-management plan. I typically recommend insurance options to cover the gaps between your business practices and legal structures, and the risks you can’t hedge against that way.  A few of the common types are:

  • Commercial general liability. This coverage can cover slip & fall and other bodily injury, defamation, emotional pain and suffering, false advertising, medical expenses, and tenant/occupant liability.
  • Disability & key person. As discussed in my articles on contingency planning, these policies can help keep the business afloat if the owner/operator or a key employee is killed or injured and unable to work.
  • Directors & officers. A company can agree to protect its directors and officers in the event that they’re sued for things they did in the course of their duties.
  • Business interruption. Protecting against loss of income in the event of fire, flood, equipment breakdown, and other events beyond the business owner’s control.

Written opinions of lawyers, accountants, and other professionals which recommend a specific course of action as being legal or viable can also be a form of insurance. Your business should be able to rely on those opinions to make its decisions. If an opinion is wrong, and the business suffers losses as a consequence, it’s up to the professional (or their insurer) to make it right.

Bear in mind that insurance is a contract as well – so read it. Know what you want to be covered for, and make sure it’s included in the policy. Have an idea of what amounts of coverage you need for each type of insurance. Ensure it covers liability occurring in the places where your products or services will be delivered. Do some research into the reputation and claim denial rate of the insurance company you’re thinking of dealing with. Call your insurance agent when starting a new aspect of your business. Insurance is supposed to provide peace of mind – which ain’t much use if you don’t actually know what you’re covered for.

You probably already know that there’s a lot more to entrepreneurship than meets the eye, if you’re doing it well. Getting legal advice can be a delicate balancing act as far as cost vs. benefit – especially when cash is tight in the early stages. Sometimes you need more work than you think, other times you need less. Each business’ needs will be different, and the only way to know for sure is to ask questions. Know what you don’t know, and get an expert when you need one. I happen to know a guy…. 😉

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
http://intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw

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Unanimous Shareholder Agreements

This can be a confusing topic. There’s a whole lot of stuff written about it, utilizing an abundance of excessively Brobdingnagian verbiage, but it’s usually a lot of talk about what a unanimous shareholder agreement (or “USA”) is, rather than why you might want one for your corporation. Here I’ll give you the basics of what it is, why you might want one, and what’s in it.

What is it?

A USA is a contract between all the shareholders of a corporation that limits the power of the directors to supervise or manage the business of the company. It could even take all management powers away from the directors. Without one in place, the directors can exercise all of the powers they’re given by the corporate laws, at the director’s discretion. Back in the day, if directors started running the company in a way that the shareholders didn’t like, there wasn’t much that the shareholders could do about it until it was time to vote for the directors again. Nowadays, the USA gives shareholders an out.

The rights, powers, and responsibilities that are taken away from the directors are then assumed by the shareholders. The shareholders will also take on the liabilities that go along with the powers – such as liability for unpaid employee wages, tax remissions, pension, environmental protection, etc. Some liabilities can’t be opted out of, such as the ones in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Make sure you know the risks before signing on the dotted line!

A USA is a “constating document” of the corporation – like its articles and by-laws – that deals with the inner workings of the company. It is important to make sure that it doesn’t conflict with the articles or by-laws.

Once a USA is in effect, any new shareholders are deemed to be a party to it, and they should be given notice that it’s in place.

Why would I want one?

USA’s are most common in companies with a few shareholders, who own roughly even percentages of the company. They’re typically used to modify or supplement the rules in the Business Corporations Act:

  • Set out a Succession Plan: I’ll blog about succession plans soon, but a USA can be used to hand off the ownership and management of your corporation so that the business can continue after you retire, or if something bad happens to you.
  • Change Default Corporate Law Rules: such as the % of directors required to vote in favour of certain material decisions, such as paying dividends, buying or disposing of major assets, entering into joint ventures, non-arms-length transactions, mortgaging or liening property, or changing the business of the Corporation.
  • Protect Investor Interests:  venture capitalists, angel investors, or banks may want a USA in place to ensure that they can control things that directly affect their investment – such as amending the articles or by-laws, mergers, issuing new shares, or the sale of substantial company assets.

USA’s can also be used to do a few tricky things, which aren’t guaranteed to work out the way the shareholders intended.

  • Foreign-owned Corporations: the law requires at least 25% of directors to be resident Canadians. A USA can take all the powers away from the directors, and let the foreign shareholders do the decision-making. This may work for some purposes, but courts will ignore this sleight of hand in certain situations, particularly to do with tax liabilities.
  • Protecting Directors: where the shareholders own their shares through a holding company. Those holding companies assume the directors’ liabilities, and in theory, the people who own those holding companies are protected. It’s likely that a court would look right through this technicality though, if there wasn’t enough to pay out the creditors.

What’s in it?

Like any contract, the contents are up to the people making it. Typically, a USA may cover many of the following topics:

  • Decision making process
  • Quorum for meetings
  • Restrictions on share transfers, and how to deal with involuntary share transfers on death, bankruptcy, or court order
  • Special rights of minority shareholders, or special restrictions on majority shareholders
  • Process to amend the USA
  • Funding considerations – from existing or new shareholders, or
  • If the directors aren’t stripped of all of their powers – representation on the board, or a right to appoint someone to observe board meetings
  • Dispute resolution
  • Right to dissolve the corporation

There are plenty of templates out there that can get you started, including this useful one from the Law Society – but as I said above, it’s incredibly important to understand the risks before fiddling with the way your corporation is run…. like using a game of Operation to prepare for open-heart surgery.

If you need a lawyer, I happen to know a guy

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
Email: mike@intrepidlaw.ca
Twitter: @MikeHookLaw

Non-Competition Agreements in the sale of a business

So, there I was, the dapper lawyer at the cocktail party, entertaining everyone with tales of legal derring-do. All were enthralled by my war story about finding a type-o on page 64 of a contract. “Tell us another!” shouted one. “Yes! Yes! Tell us a tale about something exotic! Something like… non-competition agreements!” demanded another, excitedly. I couldn’t help but to oblige.

Lucky for them, I’d just read the recent decision of the Ontario Court of Appeal where they’d just clarified the law about what makes a non-competition agreement enforceable after a business has been sold. (If you’re a nerd like me, you can read the whole decision here: Martin v. ConCreate USL Limited Partnership, 2013 ONCA 72).

This decision laid out the law on what makes for an enforceable non-compete agreement very clearly. Here are the basics:

  • We start with the presumption that a non-competition agreement is not enforceable, because it’s designed to restrict someone’s freedom to practice their trade.
  • Whoever is trying to enforce a non-compete has to show that it’s a reasonable agreement between the parties.
  • Non-competes in the sale of a business will be less scrutinized than those between employers and employees, as there’s usually equal bargaining power in a sale of a business.
  • Agreements that are signed by people who had legal advice on the agreement before signing it are more likely to be enforceable.
  • Just because it’s a sale of a business and both parties had legal advice doesn’t mean that an unreasonable agreements will be enforceable
  • A reasonable non-competition agreement will be clear, and unambiguous in three major areas:
    • The geographic scope, or area in which the non-compete applies, must be defined clearly
    • The time period that the agreement covers must be reasonable, and have a clear start and end point – and not be tied to a future event that is outside the power of the parties to control (or may never happen…)
    • The activities that are prohibited must be clear and reasonable – only what’s necessary to protect the business interests of the purchaser

A non-compete is a valuable tool to protect a new purchaser from having to fight for business against someone who has insider information on how the purchased business is run. Theoretically, if the vendor is allowed to start a new business in the same area that’s a little leaner, they could undercut the purchaser and put them out of business. The non-compete is designed to prevent this – but is only to the minimum extent necessary.

Of course, I explained to the spellbound crowd, what’s “reasonable” in any case really depends on the circumstances. Non-competition agreements or clauses are the type of thing you should get legal advice on before sticking them in any agreement – especially the sale of a business!

I’m available for legal advice or children’s parties, should ever you need me.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Mike Hook
Intrepid Lawyer
mike@intrepidlaw.ca
@MikeHookLaw