by Fred Wilson, Union Square Ventures
Litigation is something I try to avoid. It is way better to work out differences by sitting down and negotiating a reasonable deal for both parties.
But litigation is a fact of life in business. You cannot avoid it all of the time. Companies and people will sue you even when you have done nothing wrong. So you need to have a framework for thinking about litigation.
Here are some of the things I have learned over the years:
1/ Litigation is expensive. You can easily spend more money litigating than settling. If you can settle for less than the likely litigation expense, even if you have done nothing wrong, it is usually better to hold your nose and do that.
There are some people who argue that regularly settling for less than litigation costs will give you a reputation as someone who does that and it will make you a target for lawsuits, often baseless ones. I understand that argument, but I still think settling for less than likely litigation costs is generally the right approach.
2/ You can lose in litigation even when have done nothing wrong. I have a friend who is a litigator and he advised me a long time ago that “assume you have a 50/50 chance of losing, no matter how strong your case is, and then you will tend to make the right business decisions.” His point is that you should not fall back on the comfort of a “strong case.” Life is not fair. You can lose when you should win. Plan for that.
3/ Litigation expense is leverage in litigation. Early on at USV, we ended up in some minor litigation. We spent a lot of money on discovery and the other side figured out how to spend very little. We got very far over our skis on the case and we ended up settling on very favorable terms for the other side. We let the other side use expense to their favor. I promised myself I would never do that again. But I see companies we work with do that all the time. It is very easy to want to “lawyer up and fight” and often that is not the best strategy. It can be better to do the rope-a-dope and let the other side spend all of their money and get over their skis.
4/ There are times when you have to fight even if you can settle. If settling a case would materially harm your business, to the point that you would have a hard time operating it, then you must fight. These are existential cases. They are very rare, but they do come along once or twice in a career. When one like this comes along, “lawyer up and fight” is the right strategy and you should amass the best legal team money can buy and you must do everything you can to win. Figuring out when something is existential is the key. Often things feel existential when they are not. That is where the mistakes are often made.
5/ There are lawyers who are great business advisors. I like the term consigliere for them. And there are lawyers who are great litigators. Make sure you have both of them working for you in a litigation. If you can get a consigliere in your company as your General Counsel, you will be way better off in litigation. If you can’t afford that, have one on your board or in your life. The consigliere will help you manage the business side of the litigation and the litigator will manage the legal side of the litigation. It is hard for a business person to manage a litigation without a lawyer at your side.
Those are few of the things I have learned over the years. But my first rule of thump is to avoid litigation if you can. It really sucks.