A corporate lawyer friend once told me to think about director protections as a triangle with three legs :
- D&O insurance, which stands for directors and officers insurance (and with which most people are familiar)
- Indemnification agreements (with which some people are familiar)
- Charter provisions (with which it seems almost nobody is familiar)
Why does this matter? If you want to attract strong, experienced individuals to your board of directors, they are going to ask your company to provide reasonable and standard protections from potential liability associated with that work  . The same holds true for corporate executive officers, though they are often less aware of the exposure.
And, by the way, as a founder/CEO you should want to protect yourself.
My goals for this post are to:
- Put this topic on your radar, framed not just as “D&O insurance” but the “whole package” of director protections (i.e., the “triangle”)
- Share what I’ve learned as a brief introduction and provide links to more authoritative posts (e.g., from law firms)
- Remind you to seek legal counsel in addressing director and officer protections because the topic gets complicated fast, as the embedded links below demonstrate.
Most startups purchase some sort of D&O insurance fairly early in their evolution; VCs often require it. Per this The Hartford post, “D&O insurance protects the personal assets of corporate directors and officers, and their spouses, in the event they are personally sued by employees, vendors, competitors, investors, customers, or other parties, for actual or alleged wrongful acts in managing a company.”
Woodruff Sawyer outlines Eight Reasons Private Companies Should Buy D&O Insurance:
- Attracting new directors
- VC requirements
- Emerging risks
- Regulatory exposures
- Shareholder lawsuits
- IPO considerations
Per this site, startups typically purchase between $1M and $3M in coverage and the median annual cost of a policy is $3,800 for companies having raised <$5M, $9,600 for those having raised between $5M and $20M, and $17,000 for those having raised >$20M.
Despite the acronym proximity, D&O should not be confused with E&O (errors and omissions) insurance, which protects your company from lawsuits claiming mistakes in professional services, and which many startups also often purchase. Beyond the scope of this post, Silicon Valley Bank has a nice overall startup insurance primer, Everything Founders Should Know about Protecting Their Property, that also discusses business property and general liability insurance, employment practices liability insurance (EPLI), and with links to other types of commonly purchased insurance.
In my experience, indemnification agreements are important, but generally less well understood than D&O insurance.
Let’s start with defining indemnification. Per this Cornell Law site:
To indemnify another party is to compensate that party for losses that that party has incurred or will incur as related to a specified incident.
So, in our context, indemnification means that if a director is sued as a result of their work with the company that the company will compensate them for any losses they sustain as a result.
An indemnification agreement is a contract that specifies that, provided the director meets a minimum standard of conduct (e.g., acted in good faith, acted in a manner reasonably believed to be in the company’s best interests, had no reasonable cause to believe they were acting illegally), the company will defend the director against the cost of certain claims, including legal fees, litigation awards, and settlement costs . For an example, see this model indemnification agreement from The National Venture Capital Association (NVCA) , which provides a detailed introduction in its preface as well as detailed in-line comments.
As with all things legal, the devil’s in the detail on indemnification agreements. Some of the bigger issues include:
- Advancing expenses. There’s paying your costs at the end of the process and then there’s paying them along the way. To understand the need, imagine a case that costs $250K to defend over four years.
- Specific circumstances. In the indemnification mandatory or permitted? Does it apply to all claims or only certain types? What are the procedures and default presumptions to determine if the director is entitled to indemnification on any given case?
- Duration. Is the indemnification only for active directors? What if a director no longer serves on the board, but is sued in a claim related to work done in the past when they were active?
- Choice of counsel. If the company’s paying, does it get to pick the law firm? What if the director wants to hire the most expensive firm in town?
- Pathological cases. I’m not 100% sure about this one, but I love corner cases so — what if the company is suing the director? Does it have to indemnify them in that case as well?
When it comes startups, it’s important to remember the Achilles’ heel of indemnification: an indemnification agreement is only as good as the company’s ability to pay. In situations where a startup goes “cash out” (as in, out of cash), that ability is zero. Hence the need for the full triangle of director protections, including D&O insurance.
The last leg of our triangle is Charter provisions. A corporate Charter, also known as a company’s Articles of Incorporation, is a document that establishes the existence of a corporation, is filed with the government, and that lays out the major components of a company including its objectives, structure, and planned operations.
When it comes to director protection, I believe the best practice is for the Charter to contain both (a) exculpatory charter provisions that limit or eliminate directors’ personal monetary liability and, (b) indemnification language that says the company will provide directors with the fullest indemnification allowed by law (e.g., “indemnification to the fullest extent permitted by [Delaware] law.”)
Apparently, a certain amount of indemnification is automatically provided by statute (in some states) and the “fullest indemnification allowed by law” language supplements that where necessary, allowing any specific indemnification agreements to kick in . I know this point is technical, but I also know that the corporate lawyers with whom I’ve worked emphasize that D&O alone is not enough, you need to look at the whole triangle of director protections — and that Charter provisions are one leg of that triangle.
I hope you enjoyed this rather in-depth primer and that I successfully put this issue on your radar. If you’re unsure about where your company stands on director (and officer) protection, you should give your lawyers a call. I’m sure they’d love to hear from you.
List of Best Links I Found
I did a lot of web surfing to support this post. Many of the pieces I found were not focused on a given subtopic, but the whole thing. That’s good to the extent my primary argument is “look at the whole package,” but it was bad for my hyperlinking because it was, e.g., hard to find articles that discussed indemnification agreements without also discussing charter provisions. Ergo, I recommend using control-F to scan through these articles if you are looking for one specific topic of interest. In rough order of accessibility:
- VC List, Protecting the Directors of Your Startup Company
- Bryan Cave, When Directors and Officers Are Sued: How Exculpation, Indemnification and Advancement of Expenses Works (And Doesn’t Work)
- Gibson Dunn, Director and Officer Indemnification and Insurance–Issues for Public Companies to Consider
- NCVA Model Indemnification Agreement with detailed preface and in-line commentary.
- Skadden Arps, two part series, Indemnification Considerations for Directors and Officers of Delaware Entities and Insurance Considerations for Directors and Officers of Delaware Entities
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 I am not a lawyer; just a business person doing his best to try and figure things out and share what I’ve learned along the way. See my FAQ and the blog’s license agreement for additional disclaimers as well.
 I have skin the game here; I serve on the board of directors of several companies.
 There is an argument that startup executive officers who are not directors should also have an indemnification clause in their employment agreement. See your lawyer for more.
 The NCVA provides a great collection of model legal documents, including a voting agreement, a term sheet, a stock purchase agreement, and many others.
 I am at/beyond my legal depth here. All I know is you should ask your lawyer what needs to in the Charter to provide for maximum director protection. See the Skadden Arps two-part series linked above for more detail on this specific topic.