The problem was that the original document hadn’t captured the love and hope inherent in the women’s partnership. It didn’t mention why the two of them had created their business. It didn’t even mention the partners’ valued relationship, except in reference to ways they might be protected if one tried to take advantage of the other. It was a scary document, not one full of possibility.
These women are not alone. Too often, businesses either avoid lawyers or cede their power to them. In fact, policies, procedures, operating agreements, shareholder agreements, contracts, and organizing documents are all legal documents that should help a business work, but too often, the real agreements and relationships are lost in the legalese.
It doesn’t have to be that way. Just as businesses are evolving to take a more conscious approach, so are many lawyers. Instead of being the obfuscators of information, these “integrative lawyers” are facilitators and problem-solvers who help make businesses work better. They’re the bridge between the legal system and the conscious business.
A conscious approach to law isn’t just about filing some standard papers; rather, it’s about developing legal documents which reflect, support, and honor the conscious culture and relationships among the stakeholders.
In this case, the partners and I backtracked and looked at their agreements from the beginning — those they remembered and honored, which were not even in the documents they’d been afraid to sign. Then, we looked to see how we could handle the current challenges in light of those agreements. When we finished, their roles were clear. They had a plan that worked for both of them. Their friendship was preserved. Eventually, ownership of the business transferred to one of the partners. The other went on a long-term international trip. When she returned, she went to work as an employee of the company. It was a happy ending, though with no thanks to the lawyer with the 30 pages of boilerplate fine print.
IF WE’RE FRIENDS, WHY DO WE NEED A CONTRACT AT ALL?
Why do you need contracts, even with friends? The short answer is: The unexpected happens.
I once had a business partnership with my best friend in the world. We were planning to work everything out. If anyone had told me that we would get to the point where we didn’t speak, I would have said they were crazy — but that’s what happened. Another friend’s business partner became like a different person upon marrying a man who wasn’t formally involved in the business. It was as though my friend was suddenly in business with the husband, who was proof that opposites attract. And a third friend of mine was managing a business when the owner died unexpectedly at age 52.
Writing down our agreements helps memorialize our understandings — and sometimes what is unsaid but assumed — for the parties involved, plus any others who might enter the picture later (such as heirs or new spouses). Sometimes even the best communicators need to clarify what they really mean. The written words can help with that.
INTEGRATIVE LAWYERS USE PLAIN LANGUAGE
My clients’ initial embarrassment about not understanding or signing the original confusing agreement was misplaced. It was the document’s fault — not theirs. In its attempt to cover everything, its boilerplate language didn’t fit anyone. Even with more than 25 years’ experience as a lawyer, I couldn’t understand it, so how could they expect to?
Traditional lawyers insert legal jargon to help a judge interpret an agreement, but integrative lawyers use plain language that puts the power of the agreement back in the hands of the users.
INTEGRATIVE LAWYERS CAN HELP CREATE A STRUCTURE FOR ENGAGING WITH CONFLICTS AND ADDRESSING CHANGE
Contracts become long and unwieldy because lawyers think they have to plan for every possible problem. Instead, why not create a recipe for how to engage with conflicts and address changes that come up long before they become deal-breakers?
I recently heard a story about the breakup of a business: One co-founder walked into her office and found a letter from a lawyer indicating that the business was dissolving. She had no clue that the other co-founder was dissatisfied! Those partners had no structure in place for having hard conversations. There was no plan for addressing problems before they reached the crisis stage.
The purpose of a conflict-and-change process is to set out a system to interrupt a situation before it escalates. Too much focus on legal documents, policies, and procedures can be a sign that something isn’t working with the relationships in your business. Sometimes businesses pass more rules to try to control behavior rather than exploring the underlying motivations for it. Don’t lean on your legal documents and create new rules when a face-to-face conversation is what’s needed.
One good practice to prevent such a fate is to set up weekly or monthly check-in meetings for key staff. Kristin Scheel, a lawyer in Austin, TX, refers to these as “Conversations for Connection.” When the parties feel like they’ve lost connection or when the relationship is stressed, she has a series of questions that help restore the relationship (or at least get the problems aired to begin resolving them). The questions will vary by company, but a C-suite might get together and ask:
- What has been working well for us? Can we do more of that?
- What do we appreciate about each other and our work here?
- Is there something that is no longer working for one or more of us?
- Is there something we are afraid to talk about?
- Has any recent action or decision surprised or disturbed you?
- Is something outside the company getting our attention?
- Is it time to re-evaluate or redefine our work together?
In many ways, being in business together is like being married. The process can trigger deep hopes and fears. Conflicts are inevitable, so you need a foundation for resolving them, something short of dissolving the company or heading to court in the business equivalent of divorce. An integrative lawyer can and should help create that process.
CONSIDER A CONSCIOUS CONTRACT
Conscious contracts, also known as values-based contracts, integrate conscious business values with legal provisions. They’re living, breathing documents. If two parties work together every day, changes to their agreements can be constant and responsive to the changes that will happen in any business. At the same time, the agreements help provide safety and predictability. A good resource for learning more about conscious contracts is an American Bar Association book by Linda Alvarez: “Discovering Agreement: Contracts that Turn Conflict into Creativity.”
FIND A LAWYER WHO SHARES YOUR CONSCIOUS APPROACH … OR AT LEAST UNDERSTANDS IT
A lot of conscious businesses get frustrated with their lawyers. Many attorneys don’t understand the underlying values and commitments of a conscious business. If that’s the case in your business, it’s probably time to look for another lawyer — because there is a more conscious approach to law. The integrative law movement’s holistic, system-based approach is preventive and oriented toward meeting your needs from a broader perspective. Integrative lawyers can help you avoid pitfalls and legal traps while bringing clarity and workability to your relationships. Many integrative lawyers are trained in conscious business (and may even be running their own firms from a conscious framework). Interview your lawyer to make sure they have a holistic, preventive, and coaching approach to law practice. If they don’t, find one who does.
J. Kim Wright is a pioneer and leader in the integrative law movement. A digital nomad since 2008, she trains integrative lawyers around the world. She is the author of two American Bar Association books: “Lawyers as Peacemakers” and “Lawyers as Changemakers.” Find her at jkimwright.com, and learn more about conscious contracts at conscious-contracts.com.