By: Shannon Hampton Sutherland
Experts predicted that strong M&A activity would continue from 2015 into 2016. So far, that prediction appears to hold true, particularly in the biotech sector. If you want to position your company for potential acquisition under attractive terms, either in 2016 or down the road, are you ready? Locking down the company’s “non-compete” and confidentiality agreements and practices early is mission-critical.
These agreements (including confidentiality and invention agreements, non-compete agreements, and non-solicit agreements) help the company protect legitimate business interests, like the benefit of its investment in its technology, confidential information, and trade secrets, goodwill with its customers, and training of its employees. If your company doesn’t have strong programs and agreements in place with its employees, independent contractors, and consultants to protect these important assets, it might lose value in the eyes of a potential acquirer.
This lesson holds especially true in industries that are heavily-reliant on sensitive technological innovation or field-based sales organizations. One of your highest priorities should be making sure that the company has strong and enforceable confidentiality and non-compete agreements (if permissible in your jurisdiction) with these individuals and programs in place to protect the company’s interests.
- Identify and Address Gaps in the Protection of Confidential Information. The company should work with legal counsel to identify potential gaps in its programs and procedures designed to protect its confidential information. For instance, how strong is the company’s network security? Does the company have strong policies and procedures in place concerning access to data that resides outside of the network? Are the company’s written policies being followed in practice? Does the company only grant access to such information on a need-to-know basis, or is information too readily available or left unprotected? Are sensitive materials identified as such? Does the company take reasonable steps to ensure that departing employees return, and do not retain access to, confidential information? A potential acquirer will want to see strong and consistent policies and procedures in place – and followed – to protect the assets it is acquiring.
- Address Agreements With New Employees on the Front-End. Although not required in all jurisdictions, it’s good practice to let a new candidate know that he or she will need to sign a confidentiality or non-compete agreement as a condition of employment (if appropriate for the position and permissible in your jurisdiction). Indeed, some jurisdictions have special rules about whether the employee must receive a copy of the agreement in advance, and when the new employee must sign the agreement. The company can work with HR and legal counsel with expertise in this area to ensure that the company is complying with any necessary requirements for new employees.
- Identify and Address Individuals Without Existing Agreements. HR and legal counsel should identify employees (and independent contractors and consultants) who have not signed confidentiality, invention, non-compete, and non-solicit agreements. For individuals who don’t have an agreement, but who have access to the company’s confidential information or goodwill, the company can work closely with legal counsel well-versed in this area to consider whether an agreement is appropriate and craft an agreement that will stand muster for position at issue and in the jurisdictions that might be implicated. For instance, in some jurisdictions, for an agreement signed after the commencement of employment to be enforceable, the company must provide additional consideration to the employee (such as a promotion, payment, or increased compensation).
- Consider Assignment and Successor Clauses. The company should consider with legal counsel whether to include provisions providing that the employee expressly consents to the assignment of the restrictive covenants by the company at any time, and that the restrictive covenants are enforceable by the company’s successors and assigns. That type of language isn’t required in all jurisdictions, but, in some jurisdictions, it may bolster a successor company’s or assignee’s ability to enforce the agreements – something a potential acquirer will look for when considering your company for potential acquisition.
- Identify and Remediate Potential Holes in Existing Agreements. Experienced legal counsel should also review existing agreements to determine any potential holes in those documents and whether adjustments can or should be made to both meet the company’s business needs and comply with any applicable law. For example, sometimes agreements in the employee’s file pre-date important clarifications in the law that must be addressed. Or, perhaps the existing agreement is written too narrowly so that it doesn’t protect the full extent of the company’s interests or current or planned business model. On the flip side, the agreement may be too heavy-handed or written so broadly that it won’t be enforceable at all under the law of a state that won’t reasonably modify an overly broad agreement. Counsel well-versed in non-competes can help the company identify and suggest ways to remediate these (and other) potential deficiencies before it’s too late.
Bottom line: Early and regular review of the company’s non-compete and confidentiality agreements and practices is an important piece of positioning the company for favorable acquisition. Counsel well-versed in this area can help the company navigate the complex issues that come into play.
Nothing contained in this blog is intended to or does create an attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice.
 Shannon Hampton Sutherland is the Co-Chair of the Duane Morris Non-Compete and Trade Secrets practice and a nationally-known non-compete, trade secrets, and litigation attorney. See http://www.duanemorris.com/attorneys/shannonhamptonsutherland.html.
 See, e.g., http://www.forbes.com/sites/jeffgolman/2016/01/11/four-reasons-2016-will-be-a-strong-year-for-ma/#27221a634d49 (last accessed Apr. 8, 2016); http://info.kpmg.us/ma-survey/index.html (last accessed Apr. 8, 2016).