A new imperative for corporate lawyers: Don’t make children cry2010-05-06
Legal writing is, almost by definition, cold and impersonal. In the silo’d structure of most organizations, the lawyers perform the tasks expected of them, protecting the organization from risk the way they were taught in law school. The same icy legalese is crafted whether the issue is suing for trademark infringement or finalizing a contract.
In today’s environment of many-to-many engagement, corporate legal departments need to rethink the means by which they deliver some of their messages. At the top of the list is the letter companies send to well-meaning fans of the company who submit product ideas.
During my tenure at Mattel (1984-1988), I heard several stories of children who were upset when their idea for a new toy was met with a formal legal response. There were reasons Mattel would not even read a letter containing a product idea. Should the company, on its own, develop a similar product, the mere fact that the letter was opened could lead to litigation questioning who conceived the idea. All new products came from within the company or a few toy design firms with which Mattel has formal alliances. Every now and then, the executives would gather for a day to hear outside pitches. But an unsolicited product idea that came in the mail was returned unopened with the obligatory legal statement.
The fact that that legal document made a little girl cry? Regrettable but unavoidable.
Today, however, the parents of that distraught child can tell the world about on Facebook, Twitter, their blog or any of the myriad other social channels available to them. Suddenly that disappointed child can have an impact on the reputation of a company.
Apple, for instance, made headlines when it sent a nine-year-old girl a cease-and-desist letter after she suggested enhancements to the iPod—as part of a class project, no less. It took three months from the time she enthusiastically submitted her ideas to the receipt of the nastygram. Her mother, in a TV news interview, said, “She was very upset. She kind of threw the letter up in the air and ran into her room and slammed the door.”
The same kinds of stories have been told about rejections from Mattel and Hasbro, with potentially millions of consumers exposed to the view that companies treat children who love their products and want to share their ideas as litigants.
The most recent company to face this kind of unwanted publicity is Boeing, which apologized early this month for sending a legal letter to an eight-year-old who submitted his idea for an airplane. The boy’s father, outraged by the response, blogged about it, creating something of a firestorm for Boeing.
To Boeing’s credit, the company is rethinking how it responds to children’s ideas. Todd Blecher, a Boeing spokesman, is quoted saying, “We should be taking the opportunity with a child to encourage their interest in airplanes and so we’re gonna try and come up with a better letter for children that meets our legal needs but also has more positive words for them.”
From Apple, sadly, no response at all. Apple needs to adopt the attitude of Boeing, which believes it did nothing wrong in sending back the design idea but recognizes its manner of communicating through strict legalese needs updating. Ditto Mattel. And Hasbro.
Even legalese needn’t be so cold. In his book, “The Party of the First Part,” Adam Freedman insists there is no legal rule compelling lawyers to write the way they do. “The sheer number of lawsuits arising from ambiguities in contracts and statutes is enough to suggest that legal language has not achieved its desired “precision’ despite a millennium of effort. One law professor estimates that only 2 percent of the average legal document is actually devoted to conveying legal concepts. The other 98 percent needs our help.”
These days, when a legal letter that was perfectly acceptable 25 years ago now spreads the word that your company made a child cry to disgusted parents everywhere, it’s time for legal departments to reconsider their approach to responding to unsolicited product submissions, especially from children.
Much of the talk about social media zeroes in on authenticity and real human relationships. When everybody in the company is responsible for the company’s reputation, the legal department needs to embrace a more human approach to doing its very necessary job.