Thursday, October 27, 2011

Should Legal Report to PR?

OK, it sounds ridiculous, but consider: Any company of size employs a public relations staff. It's how you acquire, manage and - hopefully - shape earned media. Public relations is taken very seriously, and invested in accordingly. A savvy PR staff can generate an outsized return on an investment in relationships and managing the company's image in the press.

Why then, do companies - like Sony Ericcson - continue to allow their legal departments to undermine that PR work?

Imagine the conversation if the Sony Ericcson legal group reported to PR:

PR: Wait, you want to do what?

Legal: There's a guy running a blog that has the name of one of our products in it. And get this - the domain he's using has our product name in it! We can't have that. We're going to threaten him with a UDRP action unless he shutters the blog and hands the domain to us.

PR: Haven't we talked about this? If there's someone hating on us, it's usually best to just ignore them? You know, Streisand Effect?

Legal: Oh, he's not a hater. It's a fan site.

PR: You want to take down a fan site? Someone is writing nice things about us for free and you want to stop them?

. . . you do know that we spend nearly $1 billion a year on advertising, right?

. . . and that this blogger is giving us free advertising?

. . . and that when he's forced to shut down he, and the 4chans and TechDirts of the world, are going to start saying all sorts of nasty things about us and how heavy-handed we are?

. . . which is pretty much the exact opposite of this department's primary goal?

But you're the lawyer - there must be a very good reason for going after this fan. Is he confusing lots of our customers?

Legal: No, it's clearly a fan site. But he's got an affiliate link where people can buy our products.

PR: Uh . . . we're kind of in the product selling business. So his site must be messing with our SEO, outranking our sites on Google?

Legal: Not yet, but it's a .net domain.

PR: It's a .net domain? You do know that a .net domain is the internet equivalent of second-hand store on a back street, right?

Legal: Look, the issue is that there's a chance that this use of our product name could dilute our brand and cause us to lose the trademarked name of the product. We've got to defend our trademark!

PR: OK. So stacked against the 100% chance that your letter will cost us - at a minimum - hundreds of thousands of dollars in negative publicity, what's the risk that this site being out there causes us to lose our trademark?

Legal: Oh, that would never happen. But it sets a bad precedent.

PR: [facepalm]

Monday, October 17, 2011

The Black Hole of Customer Complaints

The Bizzle writes about the role of corporate counsel in occasionally having to deal with real live customer complaints. I had to chuckle; there is much to recognize there.

When I was GC of a regional wireless company, I was deemed the "black hole" of customer complaints, the place that those too crazy or persistent for even our executive escalation team to handle would be sent. Like the guy who would send 27 page faxes to us every day, copying the regulatory agencies and every government official he could think of. Or the customer who sent in a package containing his bill (crumpled up into a tight little ball), a foot-long dowel and a tube of KY Jelly.

What I found was that - much like the Bizzle's experience - for the vast majority of these complaints it was a matter of listening. Listening, because there was nothing else I could offer. Any complaints amenable to resolution would have been dealt with long before they reached me. So I listened, tried not to argue too much, and told them "no". "No," over and over again. No, we would not fundamentally change our business processes. No, we would not pay them millions of dollars for a perceived slight. No, we would not humbly and abjectly go out of business.

And - most importantly - No, there is no one to escalate to beyond me.

These complaints were stuck beyond the event horizon of my "Office of the General Counsel" black hole. They could not go forward and vent their spleen to our CEO, nor backward to make another run at our customer care staff. All further communication would be to me, and me alone. Eventually, they would exhaust themselves and move on to whatever was next in their lives.

It was a clean process, if not always the best use of a GCs time. It required listening, but never for too long; the judicious use of calendar management and setting expectations that I only had time to talk for so long at a spell. But it was a far better process than having the CEO take these calls, and it provided some comfort that if one of these people had a legitimate claim, it would find the legal department while something short of a lawsuit could still make things right.

Unsurprisingly, this is a big part of my current role. Being in the business of publishing information, ratings and reviews of attorneys, we field a number of complaints from those we profile. This is not about paying customer escalations, but rather all about unhappiness and control from a handful of those we've published information about. Many of those have been interesting conversations, and some have even led to changes in our operations. But the vast bulk of them involve me listening and saying that oh-so-familiar word: "No." And because these are attorneys, I often must follow my "no" with an explanation of why suing us would be a bad idea. I have anecdotes and correspondence from these conversations that would fill a book. But that, readers, will have to wait for another day.

Saturday, October 08, 2011

The Narcissism of Revolution

"Occupy Seattle", a thinly-attended offshoot of Occupy Wall Street, has been going on across the street from my office this last week. What do the "occupiers" want? If you view this rant narrated by Keith Olbermann (shredding whatever scraps of integrity he might have left), they want America to know that corporations are evil.

Don't get me wrong - I like a good protest. Lock yourself to the gates of nuclear plant, protest the war, demand equal rights, whatever. But here are the problems I have with this protest:

1. It's infantile and wrong.

Have corporations visited these evils upon us? Of course they have. But corporations have also generated jobs, enabled innovation and powered an unprecedented increase in the standard of living for Americans. Corporations have developed the tools used by the protestors, and employ most of their parents, making it possible for them to protest. And let's face it: if all you want to do is run out a one-sided diatribe, a similar litany could be employed against labor unions, public school teachers, religions - or the entire human race.

2. It's non-actionable.

What exactly would the occupiers do about the evil corporations? Regulate what they can pay their employees? How they can spend their money? How much profit they're entitled to earn?

Why yes, if you listen to many of the occupiers. They want public ownership of corporate assets. They want redistribution, Soviet-style. Never mind the experience of the last 80 years. Never mind the spectacular abuses and failures of centrally-planned economics.

3. It's narcissistic.

Many of the OWS protesters compare themselves to democracy activists in the middle east. America may have issues – we’ve got an overreaching security state, we waste tens of billions of dollars on a spectacularly failed war on drugs, we pay too much for middling health care outcomes, and we aren’t willing to tax ourselves enough to pay for all the goodies we want. But these issues are nothing - nothing - compared to what people in Egypt, Tunisia, Syria and Yemen faced or are facing.

It's embarrassing that the OWS crowd thinks getting jailed over a hippie campout is the moral equivalent of facing bullets while standing up for democracy in Cairo or Damascus.

4. It's entitled.

At the center of these complaints is a failure to take accountability. No one forced you to take out that over-leveraged mortgage, or go $100K in the hole to get a college degree. We all have choices, and we own the consequences of those choices. And don't forget that many of the problems plaguing our state and local governments stem from the rapacious appetite of government employee unions, and the failure of our leaders to protect taxpayers from the ruinous pension obligations they've signed up for.

Joe Biden said Occupy Wall Street is like the Tea Party. And he’s right. Just like the Tea Party – with its “keep your hands off my Social Security/but don’t tax us” message - OWS suffers from magical thinking in its muddled blend of tired lefty tropes.

Those of us in the reality-based community don't have patience for such indulgent, pointless crap.

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Do Female Lawyers Thrive In-House?

The ABA Journal asks the question of whether female attorneys are more successful in corporate jobs than in law firms due to corporations placing a higher value on female lawyers' "people skills."

The article then sloppily compares hard data (females comprising 15% of equity partners at large law firms) with anecdote ("some women lawyers are suggesting that female attorneys do better, overall, when working in-house").

Oh, but data's not hard to find. It turns out that of Fortune 500 General Counsel, women comprise (drum roll, please) . . .


Huh. That's only slightly better than the equity partner rate.

Here's two things I know: First, people skills are important in corporations, far more so than in law firms. And second, there are plenty of attorneys with bad people skills. Lack of people skills is an equal-opportunity problem. It's why attorneys score in the 13th percentile for sociability (or as one managing partner at a large firm once told me, the 8th percentile if you control for rainmakers).

The data above would tell us that women lawyers have only marginally better people skills. And that margin could likely be explained away by the job style and hiring difference between equity partners and Fortune 500 GCs.

Can we stop falling back on counter-productive, fluffy gender stereotypes like "better people skills" - especially when the data doesn't bear them out?