Published on March 9th, 2016 by Alan L. Sklover
“The spirit of our verbal agreement was true partnership, but
over time it morphed into this one-sided employment arrangement.”
– Actual Client Comment
ACTUAL CASE HISTORY: Kent was the Senior Editor of a major sports-related magazine. He was recruited away by a competing start-up publication, induced to leave his employer of many years by a promise of great wealth to be achieved through his becoming a minority shareholder of the new or young company. Kent gave the new magazine credibility, and for joining he was offered a large number of “Class B” interests in the company.
“When we are sold, or go public, you will become quite, quite wealthy” he was many times told by the start-up’s founder and investors. That was repeated so many times that Kent had already begun to consider where he would purchase his retirement dream, a horse farm.
Through an heroic contribution of energy, imagination, devotion, daring and perseverance, Kent helped the new magazine take significant market share away from larger, more-established competitors. He treated the new magazine as “his baby.” On a salary lower than he was used to, and minimal benefits, he built quite a powerhouse in just a few years. Sure enough, the magazine had attracted great interest, and a communications consortium came forward seeking to purchase the company that owned the magazine. For Kent, however, that was the beginning of his problems.
It all started with a casual management meeting that devolved into a discussion of Kent’s poor judgment, and then an announcement that Kent was being let go. It got worse when he learned that, because he was being let go, he would lose all of his unvested stock. Still worse, he found out that the company had a right to repurchase his vested stock for just $3,000. A third type of stock Kent had been given as a bonus had been so “diluted” by the company issuing 10 million new shares to investors that his remaining interests were worth about $45.00. Finally, he was reminded that the original documents he signed provided that Kent could now not work in the magazine industry for the next 24 months.
No job. No stock. No future. The dream had, somehow, turned into a nightmare. When Kent protested that this was not consistent with the spirit of the deal, he was simply advised, “Speak to your lawyer . . . the one who let you sign those papers.” That is when Kent called us – and not his previous lawyer – to try to salvage the situation.
More times than I can count,: someone contacts my firm and says, “I am being offered a new job. As part of the compensation package, they are offering me shares or units in the new or young company. Can you help me?” My answer is always, “Sure, I have done that many times.” A more candid answer would be “Sure, I have done that many times. However, it’s not an easy thing to do.”
“Why?” you might ask. It is not easy because lawyers for business founders or owners – particularly “Private Equity” owners, almost always make it difficult, and intentionally so. They do so in three basic ways:
First, by purposeful confusion. That is, by preparing three or four different agreements that, together, constitute one offer: (1) one that pertains to employment; (2) one that pertains to non-competition agreements, (3) one that pertains to company self-governance, itself, and (4) one that pertains to earning, vesting and possibly losing ownership interests. It’s a lot of words, a lot of pages and a lot of jargon. No single employee can understand it all. It is quite rare to find an attorney who has experience in each field. In this way, the key points – and real risks – get buried.
Second, through dreams of sugarplums. As the saying goes, “The large print giveth, and the small print taketh away.” Said a bit differently, the potential rewards are highlighted, while the likely risks are made quite difficult to spot, and even more difficult to remedy. Thus, clients begin to count their eventual wealth, which naturally blinds them.
Third, with complexity of cure. When you have three of four separate agreements, often in different typefaces, often without page numbers, always with different paragraph numbering systems and – most complex of all – with hard-to-understand, almost irrational definitions of words and phrases.
There are just too many ways, in too many different places, that the risks are effectively hidden, and the rewards are potentially forfeited. It is something akin to the game of “Whack-A-Mole,” where every time a mole appears from the ground, and you whack at him, another mole pops his head up from another mole hole.
In no other part of my practice of decades have I seen more “bait and switch” than I have in this context. The employee must make life changes and agree to restrictions NOW in return for a mere PROMISE of something to be delivered later, which “something” may in all likelihood never come to be, or if it does come to be, is perhaps 1/1000th as valuable as originally suggested.
LESSON TO LEARN: The task before us is tough: making real – at least likely – the dream opportunity, which by the legal papers has been diminished, made unlikely, and often turned into a nightmare reality by confusing, confounding and complex legal drafting. One thing the legal drafting is not is accidental. Rather it is quite intentional. That is the one thing I can guarantee you.
No matter how difficult the task at hand may be, you are so much more likely to be successful in it if you know what you are doing. Thus, by knowing the essential deal points in this context, and knowing how to address them, can only be helpful.
So long as your requests for change in the legal papers is respectfully presented, reasonable in magnitude and accompanied by a rationale – that is “I want to join you. I just need some things made clearer before I can comfortably come aboard.”
Simply signing what is before you, and hoping that you will be treated “fairly,” is not something that I have seen work out well for employees. And, too, you owe it to yourself and your family to try to avert calamity in your quest for that pot of gold. Here’s how:
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