Tag Archive: corporate secretary

Corporate Secretary Guidelines: Taking Notes and Preparing Official Minutes

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Bart Friedman and Bradley J. Bondi

Meeting minutes of the board of directors, which usually are prepared by the corporate secretary, can play a crucial role in a government investigation or civil litigation relating to a decision or indecision of the board of directors or the knowledge of an individual director. In some instances, the minutes could establish an important defense for directors, while in other instances the minutes may subject directors to unnecessary criticism or worse. Directors should ensure that the corporate secretary follows these guidelines.

Unlike the meeting secretary, directors neither are obligated nor are advised to take individual notes during board and committee meetings. Individual director notes are unnecessary because the secretary’s official minutes will contain a record of the meeting. Additionally, director note-taking is risky. Directors’ notes likely would be discoverable in litigation, and notes that seemed clear in the days after a meeting may not be clear several years later after memories have faded. Absent a clear interpretation, adversaries will attempt to impose their own meanings on the notes. Furthermore, if multiple directors take notes, discrepancies may exist with other notes or the official meeting minutes.

Although individual circumstances may vary, below are some general guidelines that corporate secretaries of U.S. companies should follow when they take official notes and prepare meeting minutes for the board of directors. If a company is incorporated outside the United States, different guidance might apply.

  1. Record the essential information. The corporate secretary should record essential information such as the date, starting and ending times, location, attendees (e.g., directors, management, experts, and legal counsel), presence and maintenance of a quorum, meeting chair, materials distributed in advance of the meeting, topics discussed, and decisions made in a formal meeting of the board. In some cases, the secretary should note the length of particular discussions and deliberations, especially if a particular discussion is an important part of the meeting. Directors also should ensure that the notes taken by the corporate secretary do not editorialize, as commentary could be misconstrued by an adversary if discovered in litigation.
  1. Clearly identify separate meetings and tasks. Because notes and minutes are incomplete by nature, the more organization and structure they contain, the easier they will be to understand and interpret in the event that they are scrutinized. Secretaries should use the meeting’s agenda as a guide for organizing and labeling their notes and the minutes, and should indicate transitions from one topic to the next, including presentations by management, counsel, or advisory firms and executive sessions.
  1. Identify in notes when an attorney is present during a conversation. Directors’ interactions with lawyers usually are protected by the attorney-client privilege or work-product protection, which may shield the content of those discussions from being turned over to an adversary. Boards also should consider including the general counsel in meetings that could involve a discussion of legal issues. If a lawyer is present during any portion of a meeting, the minutes should indicate the lawyer’s name and law firm, and the portions of the meeting for which the lawyer was present. Generally, the minutes for these interactions should indicate only that such discussions occurred and the general topics discussed.
  1. Identify and describe the board’s deliberative process. Recording the general fact that the directors discussed or deliberated about an issue is critically important. However, what a particular director said about a particular issue is usually less important. For that reason, and to avoid errors in attribution, the secretary’s notes and official minutes generally should use collective or passive-voice descriptions (e.g., “the directors discussed the matter” or “a discussion ensued”) as opposed to attempting to record individual viewpoints and the directors who expressed them. Because directors may express passionate views about an issue, the secretary should exercise good judgment in determining what to record.
  1. If notes are taken by hand, they should be clearly, legibly recorded, and should not include shorthand. Illegible meeting notes and notes taken in shorthand can be difficult to interpret when the secretary refers to them while drafting the official minutes. Provided typing is not disruptive to the directors in the meeting, directors should ask corporate secretaries to consider taking notes on a secure computer. Clarity and accuracy are crucial because a difference of opinion between directors regarding the events that occurred at a meeting ultimately may be resolved by reference to the secretary’s notes. In the litigation or regulatory enforcement context, unclear notes may result in meeting minutes that lack an obvious, objective interpretation and are susceptible to being misinterpreted by an adversary.
  1. Encourage the secretary to maintain a standard practice of note taking. Secretaries generally should establish and maintain a standard practice for taking notes, retaining meeting materials and individual notes, and preparing meeting minutes. Deviating from a standard practice could raise negative inferences from a regulator or court.
  1. The secretary should distribute the draft minutes for directors to review as soon as practicable. During their review, directors and secretaries should be mindful of any important events that occur between the meeting date and the finalization of the minutes. If a director believes the minutes omit important information, then the director should discuss orally the matter with the secretary. E-mails regarding the minutes between the secretary and directors, or among directors, should be strictly discouraged.
  1. Discuss with counsel whether to retain notes and draft minutes. There may or may not be a legal or corporate requirement for the secretary to retain his or her meeting notes or draft minutes. After the official minutes are approved, the secretary should discuss with company counsel whether there is a requirement to maintain these materials and ascertain the length and nature of the requirement. If there is no requirement to maintain the materials, the secretary should discuss with counsel whether and how to discard them.

Bradley J. Bondi and Bart Friedman are partners with Cahill Gordon & Reindel LLP. They advise financial institutions and global corporations, boards of directors, audit committees, and officers and directors of publicly-held companies in significant corporate and securities matters, with particular emphasis on internal investigations and enforcement challenges. Michael D. Wheatley, a litigation associate at Cahill, assisted with this article.

How C-Suite Perspectives Can Strengthen Board Performance

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Over the past two decades, I’ve worked with an array of boards in multiple capacities—serving as general counsel, secretary, board advisor and board member.

In my current role as general counsel and head of NACD’s Board Advisory Services, I’ve had the opportunity to counsel and facilitate board evaluations for companies ranging from large family-run businesses to the top of the Fortune 500. Over the years, I’ve concluded: no board evaluation is truly holistic without some form of feedback from senior management.

The management team’s participation in the evaluation process creates a critical 360° view that often brings to light factors that are limiting the board’s ability to operate at peak performance. This approach can naturally raise some very sensitive issues between executives and directors. Yet my belief that anonymous, candid input from the management team is essential to a complete and credible evaluation remains constant.

The insights and information that the c-suite and beyond provide are invaluable. Not only does the input enhance the quality and validity of the evaluation, it typically uncovers information that will directly lead to concrete action steps to improve alignment between the board and senior management.

There are a couple of important dynamics that the evaluation process commonly uncovers:

Talent vs. Engagement

  • In more cases than not, management teams believe they have strong assets on the board. Yet they often find that some very qualified directors are not as engaged as they could be. The company is not fully benefiting from the wisdom and unique experience these talented advisors bring to the table.
  • Often, management sees—and reports to my team—that one or two strong personalities on the board dominate meetings, limiting the opportunity for others to contribute.

Tactics vs. Strategy 

  • Many directors tend to drill down into tactical issues, moving away from the real responsibility of the board to provide strategic direction. The board may not realize how serious the issue is until the management team reveals the extent to which that misplaced focus hinders their ability to get things done.
  • Conversely, boards often find that it’s the management team that spends too much of the meeting focused on operational minutiae, trapping them in “PowerPoint hell.” With limited time for the full board to meet, the agenda should be devoted to the most critical strategic opportunities and risks facing the company. Operational and tactical issues should be reserved for the committees.
  • Interestingly, we’ve often found that the reason for this is that management tends to drive meeting agendas, which naturally results in a focus on operational issues. In most cases, management would welcome collaboration with the board on defining the agenda to ensure the board’s time is devoted to strategic discussion and risk oversight.

We recognize that giving management a voice in a board evaluation process can be extremely sensitive for both the board and management.  To facilitate the most valuable and practicable outcomes from board evaluations, NACD’s approach ensures that feedback is completely anonymous with no risk of attribution. Our approach of weaving the results into strategic education lowers defensive barriers, enabling the “ah-ha moments” that focus the entire process on solutions rather than criticism.

Unless c-suite-boardroom disconnects are brought to light, they can fester and potentially jeopardize the organizational mission. Done right, the management team’s involvement in board evaluation clarifies expectations and fosters a healthier collaborative environment.

My experience has led me to conclude that senior management has a sincere desire to capitalize on the wisdom, leadership and unique business experience of each and every board member. By involving the management team in the evaluation process, boards capitalize on management’s expertise in the same way. Result: the organization’s full intellectual capital is leveraged for the collective benefit.