Since most of the business-to-business relationships are organized on the basis of written business contracts, it is inevitable that contract disputes would arise between businesses. Frequently, these disputes are serious enough to lead to business contract litigation between the relevant parties
Therefore, it is important for any business to prepare for such a possibility ahead of the actual commencement of the contract litigation. One of the most crucial (to the success of such litigation) tasks of a business owner is to maintain good records. Proper recordkeeping is essential to successful contract litigation, and, hence, this article lists the following five techniques for the business owners on what type of business records should be kept and how to best organize them.
1. Keep an original copy of your contract
Keeping your original copy is the most basic step in preparation for a contract litigation. Yet, it is shocking how many business owners ignore this. By “original copy” of a contract, I mean one of the counterparts of the contract which bears the original signatures of all parties. Where only one copy of a contract is signed, then you should keep this original. If, for some reason, the decision is made that the other party would keep a copy of a contract, you should request a copy of the contract for your records. This situation is especially common in joint ventures and inter-corporate agreements, but it is very unusual in business-to-business dealings.
The contract should be kept in a separate folder in a safe place. However, do not file your contract in a place that you would not remember. If your business has designated an officer of your company to keep business records, you should make sure that you know the filing system adopted by that officer and where the most important files are.
2. File “negotiation” notes and documents
In addition to the contract itself, you should file all notes, documents, and printed copies of e-mails that were produced in connection with the negotiation of a contract. “All” means “all” – any of these documents may be important to resolve an ambiguity in the contract later as well as to demonstrate a party’s intent.
There are two types of “negotiation” materials: exchanged and internal. The exchanged materials are the notes and documents that were shared with the other parties to the contract during the negotiation process. Generally, in a business-to-business setting, these types of documents are not covered by the attorney-client privileged. Absent a non-disclosure agreement stating to the contrary, it is likely that these documents would not even be considered as proprietary.
The internal materials are the notes and documents that were produced in connection with the negotiation process but were never shared with anyone outside of the company (with the exception of the company’s business lawyer). Examples could include: internal profit-loss assessments, corporate documents (such as board memorandums), assessment of risk, and so on. These documents should be marked as “proprietary information” and filed in a separate folder also marked as “proprietary information.”
Moreover, the internal documents produced by the company’s lawyer should be marked as “attorney-client privileged”; such documents should be filed in a separate folder also marked as “attorney-client privileged”.
All folders of exchanged and internal materials, including the folder containing attorney-client privileged information, should be kept together with the contact. Such organization of documents will be very useful for discovery purposes during the litigation and can save you thousands of dollars in attorney and accounting fees.
3. File Contract-Modification Materials
Documents discussing and potentially modifying the already executed contract should also be filed in a separate folder and kept together with the rest of the documents described above. While some of these documents may be obvious (such as a letter entitled “Request for Contract Modification), others may be much more difficult to classify, especially if the potentially modifying circumstances are not explicitly discussed in the contract.
Therefore, in order to take full advantage of this advanced recordkeeping technique, the business owner should consult his lawyer. An experienced legal professional with deep understanding of contact law and the facts of a specific case is in the best position to determine which documentary materials may be construed as contract modification.
4. Document Contract Performance
This is another sophisticated recordkeeping technique that requires understanding of the term “usage of trade”. Armed with this knowledge, your business lawyer will be able to determine how to document the parties’ contract performance and whether this performance is modifying or has modified the contract.
5. Record Your Company’s Intent and Understanding
This is probably the most flexible advanced recordkeeping technique aimed specifically at the possible future contract dispute. Basically, this is a technique that uses the management structure of the company to create business records regarding the intention and interpretation of a contract. As business records, this evidence of intent and understanding will most likely be admissible in court. The most common example of this technique are corporate board minutes (in the corporate context) or Board of Governors resolutions (for the LLCs).
Again, due to the level of sophistication and legal knowledge required to accurately record a company’s intent and understanding of a contract, it highly advisable that you hire a business lawyer to draft the relevant documents.
Good recordkeeping is crucial to successful business contract litigation. The techniques listed above do not constitute an exhaustive list of recordkeeping suggestions, but they should provide the minimal necessary structure that is likely to be cost-effective and highly efficient in a contract litigation context. Not all of the techniques cited in this article can be implemented by a business owner. Therefore, it is crucial to retain the services of a business contract attorney to fully protect from and prepare your business for the possible contract litigation in the future.
Sherayzen Law Office can help you create and implement a recordkeeping system appropriate for your industry and compatible with your business model.
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