Any Silicon Valley mergers and acquisitions lawyer helping clients buy and sell high technology companies is invariably provided with a simple letter of intent, happily signed by a couple of companies without input from their tax and legal advisors, and asked to prepare binding documents. In one case, my San Jose business client was not too worried about the lack of detail in the letter because, after all, it was just a "letter of intent". She was less than happy when I told her that she had actually signed a binding agreement, particularly since very little due diligence had been performed on the target company and a number of 'minor' issues that were important to her still required resolution.
A letter of intent (also called "LOI", or memorandum of understanding, or "MOU") is usually a short letter that outlines the basic business terms of a deal. Without language expressly stating that the letter is nonbinding, and that no obligations arise except under a definitive agreement, however, that letter you signed may be a legally binding contract. Even with this kind of language, a letter of intent can morph into a binding contract IF the parties conduct themselves as if the target company has been acquired. Announcing a deal (when not otherwise legally required), combining operations before a closing, and similar actions, can create a contract from conduct. With no definitive agreement signed, the letter of intent may be used as evidence to set the terms of the deal.
Why do you want an LOI to be nonbinding? Letters of intent are usually prepared and signed after the initial business proposition and marketing analysis have been performed. They are typically signed before the acquirer has a chance to really investigate the target. This is because neither party will want to conduct an expensive diligence investigation until each is sure they have a deal. If the letter of intent is binding, then the acquiring company may find itself purchasing a lot of problems of which it wasn't aware when it signed the letter of intent.
Even in a nonbinding letter of intent, there are a number of provisions which should bind the parties. In my next blog, I'll discuss the importance of having binding terms in a nonbinding letter of intent.