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LEGAL ISSUES

My Life Without Lawyers

A small-business owner explains why she wants to throw away patents, trademarks, and lawyers.
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Real Business

Here's my fantasy: We take all our patents and trademarks and we have a weenie roast

I dream of a life without lawyers. I don't hate lawyers, mind you. Some of my favorite people are lawyers. I just don't understand the system they live in. Recently, before going into court to defend one of our patents against infringement, my lawyer told me, "Don't show any emotions, not one speck." While the other side's lawyer paints me and the people I love as the worst company ever, I'm supposed to have this poker face, as if I'm at the dry cleaners discussing a spot. Sure thing!

At our company, which makes baby strollers, we teach our people to praise our competitors. During the trial, my lawyer told me I had to stop that. We tell prospective customers what nice strollers our competitors make for the money. But my poor lawyer was just freaked out and told me something to the effect of, "You dope. This is a war, and being nice will be used against you."

Thankfully, we pretty much get by without lawyers in the company. We get the legal advice, and then we ask, "Are we doing the right thing?" And that's the code we live by. Take our Andador stroller, for example. It's one of the few strollers we made in Taiwan. When we had a few instances of welds' breaking, Colette, my company's president, called me at home. No one had been hurt, but jeez, we serve little babies. We felt uncomfortable. We had to make it right. So in just a two-minute conversation we decided to trade every Andador for a new Baby Jogger--a much nicer, more expensive stroller. It cost us about $300,000 (good thing we're profitable). We never had a moment's regret. But we're businesspeople, too. We took those strollers back, vetted them out, made sure they were OK, and are selling them at cost. We've also discontinued the model. In the past we would have asked our lawyers and accountants if we could do that fix. Now we just tell them what we're up to and hear out their concerns. We didn't need to do anything about our Andador stroller. But we asked ourselves, "What's the right thing to do?" It was important that our people saw we meant it.

What about those calls we all dread? When something went wrong? Our lawyers probably wish we never spoke to customers. They could sue us! But we do talk to them and ask, with real concern, about what happened. And we go on treating them like valued customers. We may even send flowers. More than anything, we try to learn from disgruntled customers. Are we fools? Perhaps. But we are responsible for our work, our product. The standards are just internal, and we hold ourselves to them. We don't wait for a court-imposed standard of ethics.

Lately, I've been imagining what it would be like to boycott all legal proceedings. Nobody understands what's happening in them anyway. I sat in a patent hearing last week, and even though I (to my misfortune) know more patent language than most business owners do, many a phrase in that courtroom whizzed by me. Their lawyer: "Your honor, they can't do blah blah blah because collateral estoppel applies here." My lawyer: "I would suggest collateral estoppel is lacking because blah blah blah." Their lawyer: "Your honor, the blah blah case of 1979 established that collateral estoppel would apply here, and we would ask the court to blah blah blah." This big-syllable version of "did not," "did too!" "did not!" went on for hours with a total of six lawyers (four on their side, two on ours) at $200 an hour per lawyer. Collateral estoppel means that you can't claim something you claimed before and lost in court on. This is what I'm paying for? When the lawyers were all doing their bit in court last week, I just wanted to jump up and yell, "Yo, Judge! Look over here! Doesn't my competitor's Taiwan-made stroller look just a wee bit like mine?"

Frankly, I doubt that patents and trademarks do any good, anyway. We know it's going to cost $150,000 for us to take through the court system a case against a competitor who has infringed on our patent. Lately, my competition has been countersuing us for unfair trade because we used our patent to sue it. Add another $100,000 to pay to fight the countersuit. When I think of how we struggle to have money for our designers, I just want to throw up.

So here's my fantasy: We take all our patents and trademarks out in back, and we have a weenie roast. I watch the smoke twirl up in the sky, and I say, "Adios!" Then I go back in and write checks to pay all my legal bills. And when someone wants to play legal patty-cake, we just say "peace" and go figure out how to get along. In my dreams.




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