As an executive or in-house counsel, your work likely reaches across the globe.
90% of companies in the United States are involved in litigation—much of it international. American companies have increased overseas business from 49% in 2008 to 72% as late as 2010.
If you work for a medium to large corporation, you are likely working overseas or interacting with colleagues that are. This means that you are likely working around the clock putting out fires, making deals, and juggling regulatory hurdles. Are you worried of running so fast in such unknown territory that you may miss something? Do you wish you had more time to learn everything to minimize your company’s business and litigation risks?
I have good and bad news. The bad—it is nearly impossible to know all of the intricacies of international law, customs, or the unique business challenges facing your company. The good news—you don’t have to. The reality is that ignorance of international law is not what gets you in trouble . . . facts do. Case in point, see Wal-Mart’s bribery scandal in Mexico.
Here are six habits you already know and should put into practice to reduce the risks of bad facts leading to future international litigation:
1. Watch What You Put in Email
You are in charge of an international project and the pressure is mounting. Your foreign counterparts seek written assurances. So, you go on the record via email stating definitively and unequivocally the company’s position. Years later and, with hindsight, you learn you were wrong and it comes back to bite you in litigation. Or maybe you feel especially close to your Brazilian counter-part after a night of food and drinks, so you share information via email about your company’s “issues.” That email is later produced in litigation and becomes evidence against your company.
Remember, emails live on forever and travel . . . fast! Like water leaks, emails go unnoticed until the full impact of their damage emerges years later.
This is basic, but often key in litigation. If you are doing business overseas: watch your tone, grammar, use of local colloquialisms, or use of vague undefined terms (e.g. “material” breach). Avoid definitive words like: “always,” “never,” or “definitely.” Give yourself margin for error. If you are assuming, say so in your email. If you still need approval for your written position, note as much in the email. Ask yourself, “is what I am writing something I would be okay having blown up on an overhead projector in court?” If so, send away.
2. Write Facts Down and Do So Clearly
The fear of bad facts or cross-examination should not deter you from writing. Given the language barriers of international work, communication is vital to your success. So, you should write emails and correspondence. But how? The key is clarity of facts.
This means, writing facts, not conclusions or opinions. When you portray facts, be objective and detail-oriented. For example, retell the other side’s position and your company’s response. Don’t assume that the other side will stick to the same story they told you orally, so document it.
However, you are often called to make conclusions or state an opinion. When you do, make sure you identify why, the process leading to the conclusion/opinion, and what factors could change your initial viewpoint.
Litigation is drama and international litigation is drama on a global scale where each side gives their “story.” Take the lead and document the “real story” by writing it down. When you do, and litigation erupts, a litigator like me can clearly and persuasively tell your story.
3. Respect Cultural Sensitivities, But Don’t Be Afraid to Follow Up
You are in meetings with your counter-parts in Asia and essential business issues come up. Yet, you are concerned about being culturally sensitive and not losing “face.” So, you let the issue pass and put it on your to-do list. As the days pass, hundreds of other “to-do” issues join it on your list and you forget.
Respect cultural sensitivities, but always follow-up. Better yet, document it, follow-up over the phone or in person, and document what you did. I have seen clients’ major multi-million dollar litigation matters get sidetracked because an executive failed to follow-up on a legitimate concern and subsequently “waived” the issue.
4. Be a Gatekeeper and Assert Your Contractual Rights
Companies and their executives fly to the moon to strike an international deal that benefits the company. They hire great lawyers to put in all the bells and whistles to protect their business interests. Yet, when the deal meets the reality of daily business life, gravity takes over and the precious rights protected in the contract fall flat to earth.
If you are the executive sent overseas to manage the project or handle the international distribution business, become the gatekeeper. That means: read the previously negotiated contract, understand it, ask questions about it, know it intimately, and then follow the terms of the contract.
If the contract gives you the right to documents from the foreign company, politely, but firmly get your documents. If the contract calls for a delivery schedule, follow it and insist the other side do the same. If the contract requires your foreign counterpart to act a certain way, do a number of things, or behave within the confines of a certain standard, make sure they do.
Your failure to know your contract and follow it, could waive important rights, change the terms of the contract, and create multiple avenues of arguments for the other side. This could come to haunt you later when you are back in the United States and the project you were in charge of heads to litigation.
5. Ask Questions, Look Around, and Gather Information
Maybe the most important and underused tool in your arsenal to reduce the risk of overseas business leading to litigation is to ask questions.
As you undertake your overseas assignment, you will notice that some things don’t make sense. When this happens, ask questions. Who is the foreign executive you are dealing with? What is his role in the company? Why is he asking you to meet with him and a foreign government official at a swanky resort? Could this be a problem? Maybe, but you will never know where you and your company stand unless you ask questions.
While you are asking questions, look around. If you are managing a construction project in Qatar, get on the ground and look at the project site. Don’t rely on others to tell you what is happening, see it for yourself. Open your eyes . . . is anything off? What’s there that shouldn’t be there? What isn’t there that should be there? If you know your contract (as in Tip 4 above), you will know what doesn’t look right.
Gather readily available information. The reality is that international litigation becomes very difficult and expensive from the United States when all of the evidence remains overseas. So, if you hear your foreign counter-part discuss a “regulation,” “policy,” or “contract” that they are relying on, ask to have a copy . . . and actually get it. Doing so will give your company an advantage in discovery if litigation ensues.
In the end, use your senses. What do you see and hear? Does it smell or feel right? If not, take note, ask questions, and gather information as it occurs.
6. Seek Advice
Note, it is wise to seek advice on international law when doing business overseas. Whether you are working on an international investment deal, cross border real estate transaction, want to protect your intellectual property, or are worried about immigration exposure, it is good business to get counsel.
What other issues do you see for your company while working overseas? Let me know, I’d be happy to walk through the issues with you.