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by: Brent Lowe

As a progressive, values-based leader, how do your legal agreements look? [Grimace] Even the most progressive organizations struggle to change up their legal agreements. Crammed full of hard to decode jargon, legal agreements often get drawn up from a place of fear and a mindset of worry. How might we be burned in the future? There is a better way to create legal documents that align with our values and provide for dealing with less-than-ideal outcomes in a more human way.

Traditional vs values based legal agreements

Legal agreements traditionally focus purely on legalese and the use of proper legal language that most find hard to read or understand. Former deputy attorney for the state of New Jersey and Author of The Book of Agreement Stuart Levine shares that, “Most legalese is left over from the past and of no significance… In some ways, legalese demonstrates laziness about cleaning up old language.”

Packing a document with longwinded and complicated verbiage screams “We’re just trying to cover our proverbial asses for when things inevitably go wrong!” These kinds of agreements are relics of a dysfunctional system, operating on the inertia of “that’s just the way we’ve always done it”. Why begin with the assumption that participants will be future adversaries? But do we just throw all aspects of traditional legal agreements out of the window, put on rose-tinted glasses and hope nothing goes wrong? Not at all!

Where to start with creating values-based agreements

A valued-based agreement starts with the belief that participants are partners in co-creating a desired future. Adopting a more human approach to legal agreements gives organizations the opportunity to reinvent the process. It invites creativity and collaboration, taking into account the values of all the people involved, and using language that is clearly understood. Let’s get rid of cold copy & paste templates. Forget the unnecessarily complex custom legal document. Start by asking simple questions, and writing out what it is that’s being agreeing to in simple language. The benefit of this approach is a greater understanding by all about what they’re signing up to. Each person plays an active role and the language used is meaningful to them.

10 key components of a binding legal agreement

I often hear from organizations already leading together that, “We do lots of great stuff here. Just don’t look at our legal agreements.” It’s the last frontier where people are really afraid to tinker. One of the hurdles comes when leaders needing legal advice speak with a lawyer. They quickly get drawn back to very traditional legal language. Find a legal professional who understands your values and will use language and recommend actions congruent with those values. There are unfortunately few lawyers that are really embracing the idea that a legal agreement doesn’t require archaic and confusing language, but instead simply needs to clarify what it is that the parties are agreeing to.

Stewart Levine’s The Book of Agreement, referenced in Lead Together provides 10 different sections that a legal agreement should cover. Following decades of experience practicing and teaching law, Stewart has moved away from traditional legal language. His perspective is that “if an [agreement] contains a promise by one person to do something by a certain date, for a certain amount and the promised performance can be measured, then it is a legally enforceable agreement.”

The 10 components Stewart recommends include:  

  • Renegotiation/dissolution

  • Consequences

  • Conflict resolution

  • A final confirmation that an agreement has been reached

  • Intent and vision Roles

  • Time and value

  • Measurements of satisfaction

  • Concerns, risks, and fears

He provides thirty-one examples of agreements that span a wide set of situations. Each one is written in simple language and short enough to fit on one page. We recommend picking up a copy of Stewart’s book and transforming how you draft your next agreement.

Values-based legal agreements set the right tone for great working relationships

Legal agreements in organizations that lead together feel different. I use the type of values-based agreements we discuss in Lead Together, and the feedback I often get is “Wow, that’s refreshing. That’s different. That feels good.” The reality is that traditional agreements tend to focus heavily on all the possible things that could go wrong. That’s not a great space to be in. It doesn’t feel good at all. If an organization is truly using value-based formats then the general feeling about both the document, and the relationship that they’re about to enter into, will feel very different. It’ll feel healthier, more values-aligned, more inviting, open, and honest.

Brent helps Founder CEOs of companies between 5 & 40 people that are experiencing early stage success and are ready to scale — especially those wanting to build shared responsibility and accountability within their team. You will find helpful articles and tools here. Receive the first three chapters of the book for free here.

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