Breaking up a Business Partnership Doesn’t Have to Be a Trial

Men fightingA few months ago I wrote about Sam and John. They built a successful app together but personal conflict lead to a break-up of their business relationship. A large portion of their profit went to pay legal fees.

The legal mess cost them in other ways, too. It took up so much time and energy that other projects each wanted to pursue had to be put on hold. There were personal costs as well. The constant stress caused both men’s personal relationships to suffer.

Even if Sam and John had decided that they didn’t want to work together anymore, things could have ended differently. Too many business partnerships end up in costly litigation. It doesn’t have to be that way. Doing things differently can save money, time, preserve relationships, and protect your reputation.

Most people now know that, if your marriage breaks down, you don’t have to fight it out in court. But there is less awareness about alternative dispute resolution (ADR) for business partnership break-ups.

The two main forms of ADR are mediation and arbitration. Both are private, and both are likely to save you time and money.

In mediation, the parties sit down together with a neutral third party whose role is to facilitate discussion.  Mediation is very flexible and allows for creative solutions.  In the best case, mediation is a collaborative process; the parties exchange information and work towards a solution together.  Because the parties are working together to reach common goals, mediation can preserve and even strengthen relationships.

Arbitration is like a private trial, with the arbitrator acting as a private judge chosen by the parties.  (If the parties cannot agree on an arbitrator, one side may be able to ask the court to appoint the arbitrator.)  An arbitrator’s judgment is binding, like a court’s judgment, and can be appealed only in very special circumstances.  The arbitrator also has the power to decide costs.  This means that he or she can determine that one of the parties (usually the losing side) will have to pay the other side’s legal costs as well as their own.

Arbitration is more risky than mediation, because a third party is making the decisions. In mediation, the parties have control over the outcome, and you don’t have to agree to anything you don’t want to. Arbitration also tends to be more expensive than mediation.  Arbitrators charge more for their time than do mediators, and legal costs tend to be higher because it takes lawyers longer to prepare for an arbitration than for a mediation.  The advantage of arbitration over mediation is that, at the end of the process, there is an enforceable judgment and the dispute is over.  If mediation fails the parties may be left without a resolution.

As in the case of marital separation, each business partner should have independent legal advice. This is to make sure that each person understands their legal rights and responsibilities. (A lawyer cannot give “independent” advice to two parties in the same dispute.) Finding the right lawyer is crucial, if you mean to stay out of court.  When you’re consulting a lawyer, make sure that he or she is open to options other than litigation. If not, then the lawyer may not be a good fit. (Not convinced you need your own lawyer – or any lawyer? Read my “I’m in mediation. Why do I need a lawyer?”)

Finally, “Begin with the end in mind.” When setting up a business partnership agreement, include a clause that, in the event that the partnership is to be dissolved, the partners will try ADR before heading for court.

About the Image: Drawing by George Fitch, Internet Archive Book Images [No restrictions], via Wikimedia Commons.