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Daniel Niehans couldn’t ask for a better way to advertise his practice than a swift and deep downturn. The executive compensation specialist is often the hired heavy brought on board to wrangle severance pay for fired executives, who, unlike the rank-and-file, have leverage even when they’re canned. But Niehans says they wouldn’t need him on their way out if they’d had him on their way into their jobs. The Gunderson Dettmer Stough Villeneuve Franklin & Hachigian partner is currently negotiating employment agreements with severance terms for clients who just weeks prior needed his help with separation pay. “I’ve had people I’ve been working with for the third time,” Niehans said. “Sometimes they happen in short order.” Niehans said he spends about half his time these days counseling individuals who are getting hired or fired from Silicon Valley companies struggling to continue operating. “Most of these companies are surviving, but they’ve decided to go into different directions or the board decides it’s time for a new approach,” Niehans said. “So the old chief executive leaves and the new one arrives.” The tough part comes for CEOs who didn’t have a lawyer when they were hired to think through worst-case scenarios, he said. “They were thinking about maximizing their equity,” Niehans said. “They weren’t thinking about 12 months’ severance.” There’s a laundry list of thorny issues that come up when executives have to depart against their will, Niehans added. Company loans are a problem because too many people sign agreements to pay them back when they leave the company, he said. The last thing most people want to do when fired is to repay a big loan, and extensions are difficult to negotiate under those circumstances, he said. Then there’s the tricky non-compete clause in state law, Niehans said. Negotiating the terms of the agreement, while still giving the client leeway to get another job in their field, is difficult work, he said. For all the pitfalls of being a fired CEO, Niehans said he has very few distraught and angry clients. For the most part, the departing CEOs had seen a change coming and have accepted their fate, he said. “They saw the handwriting on the wall,” he said. “It’s resignation, in a different sense of the word.”

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