Pathclearer- a Blank Slate Approach to Commercial Contracts, and not having to define “Beer”

November 10th, 2007

Attorney/entrepreneur D C Toedt posted a thought-provoking piece on his blog called the “Pathclearer” approach to commercial contracts. The premise, as articulated by an attorney at English brewer Scottish & Newcastle, is that commercial agreements and one-time transactions are different beasts, but lawyers erroneously tend to treat them the same.

An M&A transaction, for example, is a one-time occurrence. Details are tremendously important because if something goes wrong the only practical recourse may be litigation.

A commercial agreement, on the other hand, is the start of a relationship. For the most part, both sides will perform happily so long as it benefits them, and poorly or not at all if it doesn’t- i.e. there is no way in the real world to force a relationship to work if one side doesn’t want to be in it.

That being the case, Pathclearer asks if simpler and shorter agreements might work better in many cases. Start with a bare agreement to work together and add in only what is necessary to make the parameters clear.

I love this approach, and for many reasons. The Pathclearer article points to a great example of a relationship bound up with such a complex set of documents that even after both sides agreed the relationship wasn’t working they couldn’t change it because they couldn’t figure out with certainty what the terms of the deal actually were.

Even more to the point, this sort of “blank slate” approach might (we hope) let people think about the issues that are actually important rather than wordsmithing the fine points (such as the example of hours spent by the lawyers trying to define “beer” precisely).

At the same time, would a company (or a lawyer- such as me, perhaps) look hopelessly naive trying to put this idea into practice? I can see the Pathfinder idea working very well in certain situations and causing enormous consternation in others where the experiences of the opposite side lead it to feel that every detail matters (as I have found to be the case with many large organizations).

Rather than a specific plan of action, then, I take the Pathclearer approach to heart as a philosophy. I believed in the idea before I saw the article, or I probably wouldn’t have paid much attention. Still, it is useful to think about the purposes of the Pathclearer concept, and approach commercial agreements with those thoughts in mind:

*Identify the business concerns before reviewing the agreement
*Focus on the key issues. Remove or ignore stuff that doesn’t matter
*Avoid tinkering with the language that isn’t critical
*Reduce and simplify as much as possible

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