Using Side Letters in Private Funds

At some point, while raising capital for a private fund, you will likely be asked by one or more potential investors to enter into a side letter. A side letter is an agreement between the fund and one particular investor to vary the terms of the limited partnership agreement with respect to that particular investor (almost always to the benefit of the investor).

Sometimes, these side letters are necessary for the investor to enter into the fund, either due to regulatory requirements or commitments it has to other parties (such as its own investors). Other times, these side letters are the result of the investor trying to negotiate a better deal for itself. Not all investors are created equal, and some have the leverage to demand side letters with certain terms, while others do not.

Whether it makes financial sense for a fund to consent to a request for a side letter is ultimately a business decision, but it is important to understand the legal considerations that arise in connection with such a request. Agreeing to some types of side letters carries the risk of litigation from the other investors or enforcement actions by securities regulators.

Common Side Letter Requests

The most common side letter request is for a partial or complete waiver of the fund manager’s fees (either the management fee, performance fee/carried interest, or both) for the investor requesting the side letter. Another common request is for a relaxation of the lock-up requirements for the investor, which gives that investor the right to withdraw his or her funds at an earlier date than other investors. Other side letter requests might include granting more access to the investor to information about the fund. Finally, some investors may want “Most Favored Nation” (MFN) clauses which essentially give those investors the right to obtain any benefit bestowed on other investors via a side letter.

Legal Risks of Side Letters for Fund Managers

For many fund managers, especially those early in their careers, obtaining capital and new investors is the biggest challenge. So, the temptation is great to accede to side letter requests from investors willing to make a large investment in the fund. This can be especially true when the investor demands the side letter just prior to closing and may have the fund managers over a proverbial barrel. There are several risks that should be kept in mind when negotiating and drawing up such agreements.

First, it is important to understand that once a side letter has been entered into, the fund manager now has two potentially competing sets of obligations: its obligations to all limited partners under the limited partnership agreement and its obligations to the particular limited partner via the side letter. Generally, in the case of a conflict, the provisions of the side letter govern. Often, a fund manager is perfectly able to balance these concerns. For example, in the case where a manager waives its fee with respect to a particular investor, there is generally no significant issue because that fee waiver doesn’t negatively impact the other investors. The fund manager can charge the fee disclosed in the private placement memorandum and limited partnership agreement to the other investors while also waiving that fee with respect to the investor who requested the waiver.

However, other common side letter arrangements do cause potential legal issues for fund managers. For example, allowing an investor with a side letter to exit the fund early could cause the fund manager to face a claim for breach of its fiduciary duty to the other investors because they could claim that they were harmed by the side letter. In a situation where the fund is unable to meet all of the requested redemptions, the investors that do not have a side letter allowing for an early withdrawal are at a disadvantage because the investors that do have such a side letter may have drained the liquidity from the fund by the time the other investors are eligible to request a redemption.

Likewise, side letters that grant a particular investor additional information the other investors are not privy to may be appropriate in certain circumstances. However, if the additional access to information can be used by the investor to determine when they should make a redemption request, then such rights may disadvantage the other investors, leading to litigation by those other investors later.

In addition, the Securities Exchange Commission and state securities regulators could and often do bring claims against fund managers based on the same concerns. They may argue that the fund manager failed to fulfill disclosure and transparency requirements by not adequately notifying prospective and existing investors of the side letter obligations or that fiduciary duties owed to the investors were violated when the fund manager agreed to a side letter with an investor that disadvantaged the other investors.

Best Practices in Entering into Side Letters

While fund managers may be tempted to grant side letter requests, they should exercise due consideration and care in what requests they grant and how they grant them.

The fund’s limited partnership agreement and private placement memorandum should include language that alerts investors to the possibility that the fund many grant side letter requests to particular investors.

Fund managers should also avoid entering into oral side letters. All agreements to vary the terms of the limited partnership agreement should be in writing. Often, the investors requesting the side letter will insist on this anyway, but it’s important for fund managers not to make promises loosely.

When assessing each side letter request, the most important concern for fund managers is to determine whether the terms of the proposed side letter impact their fiduciary duties to other investors. This determination should be made in consultation with the fund’s legal counsel. When the terms of the side letter do not impact other investors, they may often be entered into without disclosing the terms to other investors. When other investors are impacted, it’s possible that the disclosure of the terms of the side letter to the other investors may be sufficient to address such concerns. More often, the fund manager should seek the consent of the other investors to the arrangement or not enter into such arrangement at all.

In addition, careful attention must be given to fund managers to what other obligations are triggered by entering into side letters. For example, those other investors with MFN status may need to be promptly informed of a side letter and offered the same benefits.

By working with fund legal counsel to draft and negotiate side letters that are in accordance with the limited partnership agreement, fiduciary duties, disclosure requirements, and other legal concerns, a fund manager can limit the potential for a side letter to cause problems later on.

This article is for general information only. The information presented should not be construed to be formal legal advice nor the formation of a lawyer/client relationship.

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Alexander J. Davie

Alexander J. Davie

Alexander Davie is a corporate and securities attorney based in Nashville, Tennessee. Businesses of many varieties rely on his counsel and judgment throughout all stages of their growth. In particular, fund managers and investment management professionals seek the expertise Alex gained when he served as general counsel to a private investment fund. Alex also has significant experience and enjoys working with companies and entrepreneurial ventures, especially within the technology industry. As a believer in technology's ability to enrich people's lives and allowing people to connect with each other in new ways, he is passionate about helping tech startups achieve success. He is active in Nashville's startup community as a mentor at the Nashville Entrepreneur Center and participates in numerous other events geared towards making Nashville a nationally ranked location for starting a business.

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