I wrote the below post in February 2022, shortly after the New York Times acquired the Wordle game. Since that time, my speculation that the Times was likely getting far more in value than it paid was borne out by its statement a few months later that the “acquisition of Wordle brought tens of millions of folks into our audience, which helped drive a lot of game subscriptions.”
There are those who are addicted to the new online word game, Wordle, and then there are those who gripe about their friends who post their Wordle scores on social media every day. This being a blog about corporate and securities law and transactions, I am not writing to opine on this question, though the fact that I’m mentioning the game at all probably tells you where I stand.
The New York Times recently agreed to acquire Wordle from its Brooklyn-based creator, Josh Wardle, as reported by the, well, New York Times. According to the newspaper/acquiror, the purchase price is “in the low seven figures.” I’m not sure whether that means a million-ish or some amount that is less than $5 million, but in any event, it is a nice payday for Mr. Wardle for a product released just a few months ago.
I was recently representing a seller in a proposed acquisition. The purchase price was under $20 million – in the context of M&A, a relatively small deal. The purchaser was represented by one of the top 10 most profitable law firms in the world. The firm organized a due diligence call, blocking off two hours for the attorneys to ask questions of the seller that related to legal matters. I was the sole attorney on the call for the seller. From the purchaser’s law firm, there were a couple of corporate/M&A attorneys, and then one representative from each of any applicable specialty practice area: tax, employee benefits, real estate, intellectual property, etc. As far as I could tell, each of these specialists spent the whole time on this long call, waiting their turn and then taking, like, five minutes to ask the specific questions applicable to their specialty. The presumptive cost of that call to the purchaser, aggregating all those high billing rates for a couple of hours each, was, to my boutique firm way of seeing things, completely unfathomable.
Clients assessing prospective law firms will often focus on a single number: the hourly rate of the highest-ranking partner assigned to the matter. Witness all the ink spilled in recent years on how rates for many partners at large firms have blown well past $1,000 per hour. (This helps my marketing efforts, frankly, as it’s easy for me to show that my firm’s rates are lower than those at large and mid-sized firms in New York.) After bills are rendered, clients will sometimes question the amount of time it took for a particular attorney to handle a particular task. But as my anecdote about the conference call illustrates, often the real driver of cost is the firm’s staffing practices and whether the firm will seek to prioritize efficiency. On most matters handled by my firm, I am the only person from the firm on any call. Other attorneys are very much involved in the matter, handling behind-the-scenes tasks such as drafting, but they will generally not spend those couple of hours on the call with me; rather, I briefly summarize for them the upshot of what they need to know. To the extent other specialty attorneys are involved on my team, they will also communicate with me separately and generally not participate in a group call unless it’s primarily about their area.
To be clear, I am not saying that having multiple attorneys on a call is necessarily inappropriate or part of a conscious effort to jack up fees. But I do think that if clients are looking to exercise some oversight on legal costs, they would be better served by looking at a calendar invite for a Zoom meeting, seeing how many attorneys have been asked to join and inquiring about whether that is necessary, as opposed to arguing after a bill is rendered that a particular agreement should take three hours to draft, rather than five hours, without really knowing exactly what’s entailed in the process of drafting one.
A small but significant part of my firm’s practice involves doing corporate and securities work on real estate development deals. I’m not a real estate lawyer (or, a “dirt lawyer” as they sometimes call themselves, in a bit of rather harsh-sounding self-deprecation), who handles core real estate transactions like purchases and leases of real estate, but I collaborate with those attorneys by forming entities and drafting their operating agreements, and ensure compliance with securities laws when there are outside investors helping to fund the projects.
The operating agreements for the entities formed for the project need to address the economics of the deal, including how any earnings from the project are divvied up between the developer (or, the “sponsor”) and the outside investors. These structures tend to be quite complex, and they have their own jargon that corporate attorneys who practice outside the real estate industry will find quite forbidding, even those who have plenty of experience with sophisticated transactions. Therefore, I thought it would be helpful to decipher a bit of that jargon as a service to the uninitiated among the corporate attorney community. I won’t address here the various other terms of art in real estate finance (cap rates, loan-to-value ratio, etc.) that aren’t directly relevant to the attorney needing to draft the operating agreement, nor will I address operating agreement concepts that are common outside the real estate context on the assumption that, if you’ve made it this far in this post, you know them already.
Although the majority of the transactions I advise on can be described as additive – one company acquiring another one, a company selling newly-issued stock to a new investor – I do spend some time on subtractive (is that a word?) matters, including business divorces. In its simplest form, this term refers to a decision of two business partners to wind down a business, often because some tension has developed in the relationship, just like a personal divorce.
As a purely transactional lawyer, I would only get involved in a business divorce if the parties want to resolve it amicably, without bringing a claim in court, though it can be useful to get the parties moving toward a solution to raise the specter of litigation and its associated costs and delay. In the world of family law, there are attorneys who specialize in collaborative or cooperative divorces, and I try to play a similar role in business divorces by encouraging compromise, even though I’m clearly representing one side and looking out for that party’s interests. Any effort to achieve total victory in these situations is likely a fool’s errand, or at least a very stressful and expensive errand.
My son is graduating college this spring, and he will then start work at a law firm in New York as a paralegal, to give him an opportunity to see law in action and decide whether he wants to apply to law school. My wife and I have been aggressively neutral as far as trying to shape our children’s career choices. We’ve been careful not to push them into law, but we’re not discouraging it either.
In talking to other parents over the years, some are neutral like me, but a significant number who are themselves lawyers say they strongly discourage their children from entering the law. I can’t think of anyone I know at the other extreme, who affirmatively try to push their children into a legal career, which is a contrast to the more intrusive parental approach of many years ago. (Though I should point out that when I was growing up, my trial lawyer father and novelist mother took a neutral and supportive role as I now have.)
The Wall Street Journal reported exclusively on plans by the London Stock Exchange to create a special market for the shares of private companies for limited public trading. The plan itself is not yet public, so the Journal was only able to report on limited aspects of what is contemplated. In the same way that U.S. private companies have increasingly been able to access public-like markets with new exemptions like Regulation CF, Rule 506(c) and Regulation A+ and the development of secondary trading markets for large private companies, this is an effort across the pond to provide some of the benefits of public market access to small and fast-growing companies.
I can’t claim to have invented remote work, but I can say that I was doing it well before the majority of the workforce was forced into it in early 2020. My firm’s address, since its formation in 2010, has been at 565 Fifth Avenue in midtown Manhattan. For the first several years, I took the Long Island Railroad in every day and worked in my office, like any other lawyer. As the firm evolved, I built a network of freelance attorneys that worked for the firm. Especially given that the first two of them resided in Spain and Alabama, respectively, I was never going to need to provide extra space for the attorneys; accordingly, they worked from wherever they wanted.
After a few years of this, it occurred to me that without any opportunity for literal face-time with my co-workers, it was kind of silly for me to endure the commute on days where I had no meetings with clients or others. So, I set up shop in a spare bedroom at home in Port Washington, LI, and went into the city only when there were meetings. Aside from the occasional unwanted noise during conference calls from dogs or teenagers, it’s worked quite well.
I have found over my 23 years of law practice that, assuming I’ve consumed my usual copious amount of coffee, I can be quite productive and efficient when I get into a flow. When that flow is interrupted – by a phone call, someone popping into my office for a quick question, a car alarm going off, etc. – it can be difficult to get back into the groove. The good news is that a number of workplace trends in recent years have resulted in a general decline in interruptions, leading to more efficient work.
At least for me, the key development has been the advent of email. Everyone likes to complain about email – not me! As long as you don’t set your email system to notify you of every incoming email, which for me would be crazy-making, you are in control of when you look at it. Unlike someone making a phone call, the sender of an email is not expecting a literally immediate response. Of course, law is a service business and clients have reasonable expectations of a prompt reply, but the checking of the email can wait until you’ve finished reviewing that convoluted contractual provision.
The Small Business Administration (SBA) has just launched the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), arranging for forgivable loans to small businesses affected by COVID-19. There are, however, widespread implementation issues, with several banks that will administer the loans not yet being ready to process loan applications, as of April 6, 2020. For general guidance on the program, I can provide you with this fact sheet from the Treasury Department and a website guide from the SBA. Additionally, most large law and accounting firms are constantly issuing client alerts summarizing the latest developments, which are available on those firms’ websites.
Every deal lawyer has had the experience. The deal negotiations have gone on longer than anyone expected. Frustration is setting in. At that point, one of the individuals involved, more likely to be one of the principals instead of an attorney, demands an all-hands, in-person meeting to get the deal done, and “we’re not leaving until we have a deal.” This impulse, while understandable, is often misguided and can lead to additional frustration.