A little over a year ago, I wrote a blog post about the danger of relying on precedent. Now, more than ever, clients and their advisors need to revisit contract forms on which they may have been relying for years. While many of us have lived through times that required certain adjustments in how we viewed contractual obligations — recessions, wars, oil embargoes, natural disasters, 9/11 — none of these events had the widespread and long-lasting impact that the current COVID-19 pandemic is having. None of these events shut down the U.S. economy and impacted global supply chains across every industry in the manner we are now experiencing.
With this in mind, there is a need to figure out what the “new normal” will look like for contract negotiations in a post-pandemic world. Business professionals need to now anticipate more widespread disruption than we could have ever before imagined. It isn’t just force majeure clauses or material adverse effect provisions, as these will likely add pandemics and government shutdowns to their ever-growing list of contemplated risks, if they were not already expressly covered. And it is not clear, at least in the near-term, whether a resurgence or mutation of COVID-19 or the emergence of another virus can truly be seen as unforeseeable in a post-COVID world. The issues are much more fundamental to the approach that parties may take in negotiating contracts. Commercial contracts between purchasers, vendors, distributors, licensors and licensees will need to evaluate allocation of risk from both sides and come to a new happy medium that all can live with in an ever-evolving world. While parties should review their standard contracts in their entirety, some key provisions to think about include:
- Length of the contract and exclusivity. Depending on which side you are on, you may want to reconsider a long-term arrangement that ties your company to a particular vendor or distributor. Supply chain disruption can have a seriously detrimental impact on your business. Are requirements contracts where a particular supplier is required to make available all of your needs for a certain good or service really the best arrangement for your business? What about take or pay arrangements where you are obligated to which are common in certain industries pay a minimum amount or a penalty to a supplier whether or not you actually purchase the contemplated volume of goods ? Do you really want to be tied up in an exclusive arrangement, or do you need flexibility to maintain secondary or tertiary sources of supply? Do you want to provide a licensee with an exclusive right to your technology (even within a limited field of use or industry sector)?