Boiling Down Boilerplate in M&A Agreements: A Response to Choi, Gulati, & Scott
67 Duke Law Journal Online 2019
35 Pages Posted: 12 Feb 2019 Last revised: 21 Feb 2019
Date Written: January 1, 2019
“Boilerplate” consists of standardized terms whose meaning is intended to be consistent from one transaction to the next, and these provisions are ubiquitous in contracts and related transactional documents. In their recent Duke Law Journal article Stephen Choi, Mitu Gulati, and Robert Scott have highlighted the potentially corrosive effect of the legal drafting process on boilerplate provisions. They show how incremental edits to boilerplate pari passu clauses for sovereign debt agreements have led to textual “black holes,” which potentially undercut the standardization purpose, wording, and substantive meaning of these boilerplate provisions. In this Article we offer preliminary evidence of a similar textual “black hole” phenomenon taking place in the mergers and acquisitions context.
We show that the mergers and acquisition context epitomizes the problem of unreflective copying of precedent provisions combined with ad hoc edits to individual clauses, which erode the textual integrity and meaning of boilerplate provisions. Each agreement is based on a prior deal precedent, and drafters frequently incorporate sections of the prior deal without sufficient scrutiny about the degree to which idiosyncratic novelties have been introduced in the precedent document that may be inapplicable to the new deal. At the same time, high levels of “editorial churning” take place in the process of transforming each precedent into the current acquisition agreement. The result is a problem of “drafting drift.” Boilerplate provisions live on from deal to deal, yet gradually shed their textual integrity and potentially lose their clear meaning as ad hoc edits are copied from deal to deal and new ad hoc edits are added at each stage.
We show how it is possible to identify the paragraphs of acquisition agreements which serve as boilerplate and to document both the degree and type of textual “drift” of these provisions over multiple generations. We construct “family trees” for boilerplate provisions by tracing the ancestors of each provision backwards in a linear way to each prior precedent. Then we reverse the process to show how ancestor provisions have progeny extending out in multiple directions which become increasingly dissimilar to their original ancestor and to each other over a few generations of acquisition agreements.
Our study shows that incremental changes in boilerplate from one generation to the next foster rapid “speciation” of the terms. Small additions and deletions from boilerplate text lead to significant cumulative effects over multiple generations. We demonstrate that this textual “drift” takes place both within individual boilerplate lineages, but also even more broadly for boilerplate provisions that have a common ancestor precedent, yet evolve separately along different lineages of precedents. Like the Big Bang, the heterogeneity of boilerplate text appears to increase in all directions, which supports an “expanding universe” theory for boilerplate that undermines the textual integrity and the meaning of boilerplate terms. While we will expand on the quantitative and qualitative analysis of the evolution of boilerplate in a future work, the preliminary evidence presented in this paper reinforces the case for the textual “black hole” theory.
Keywords: Contracts, Mergers & Acquisitions, Empirical Legal Studies
JEL Classification: K12, K22, K00
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation