By Bill Yanger
When I was growing up, my father, a lawyer, had a cynical little cartoonish statue of an English barrister with the requisite wig and monacle on a shelf near his desk. The phrase at the base of statue said simply, "Sue the bastards."
These days lawyers get more grief than praise from the public for lawsuits, and perhaps some that grief is aptly placed. But in my experience there comes a time when small businesses and individuals with significant financial interests realize there is no other solution than head to the Courthouse. Let's talk about a few of those folks.
A neat little value-added aspect to what I do is the opportunity to learn details, both the mundane and unique, about different businesses and the people who run them. Do this thing long enough and one encounters a menagerie of human genius, perseverance and courage. There are some scary smart folks out there and it's often a humbling thump in the head to realize just how much smarter they are than us. Well, at least than me.
Genius aside though, their grit and determination at the brink of failure is perhaps even more impressive.
There is the former accountant whose passion for beach culture lured him from behind a desk and into a VW micro bus selling sunglasses and t-shirts a few steps from the lapping waves. Just another Gen X'er with no ambition you say? Guess again. Today he runs perhaps the largest on-line direct retailer of boardshorts, those surfer style baggy bathing suits, in the world. Take that, Corporate America.
What about the Tampa based television/film/digital media production company that for years, tucked in an anonymous office center, attracted talent and developed its chops and an industry rep for quality but just couldn't break through what many considered a glass ceiling controlled by decision makers in New York and Los Angeles? For years, on any given weekend, you could find their credits rolling on three or four network offerings and they are considered one of the avant garde' of the coming wave of streaming content and 3D media. Glass ceiling? In shards.
Of course, there is the professional boxer who spent years in rings around the world seeking respect from a press and a public who never quite accepted him as one of the sport's elite. That is until one fateful night in Las Vegas when he wasted no time putting his world-champion arch rival and persistent nemesis to sleep with a brilliant and flashy combination of blows. Respect acknowledged. Next stop: Hollywood and a role in the Rocky saga and continuing ringside analyst gig on Showtime.
Feel good stories all, and the shared lesson threading its way through each of these successes is actually a form of brinkmanship. Not the Kennedy v. Kruschev "my missile is bigger than your missile" kind but perhaps on a personal level a more edifying form. You see, each of these clients has stood at the precipice, that moment when they could easily (and quite literally) have thrown in the towel and shut it down.
The beach-minded accountant? He played David against a retail Goliath, one of the world's largest department store chains, bent on litigating him into an ugly oblivion over its particularly mean spirited practice of margin protection. The gory number crunching details of Goliath's arguable fraud and misrepresentation, much less its clear intent to send a threatening signal to other small vendors, are less important for our purposes here than "David's" willingness to face down the bully and not blink. Goliath succumbed. "David" now thrives.
The Tampa production group faced a similar threat to its continued existence after a convicted felon (and competitor) thought it'd be fun and profitable to force the company into an involuntary bankruptcy. That's the procedure available to essentially anyone willing, along with a few like-minded cohorts, to file a petition swearing that the targeted company is insolvent whether that is true or not. While there are significant penalties for misrepresenting such accusations, often by the time the dust settles and the victimized company can prove its ability to operate and pay its bills, the damage has been done. But this production company fought back, proved its viability and ultimately obtained a judgment against the convict. Talk about truth and justice prevailing.
The professional boxer, a world champion several times over and on the eve of what would potentially be his biggest payday yet, found himself and his family threatened with financial ruin by a former promoter whose interpretation of an outdated contract seemed at odds with everyone but he and his lawyer. But that did not prevent the promoter from seeking aggressive legal action in at least two states and threatening more in a third. Instead of retreating to the ropes and covering, the boxer responded with his own crisp combination of legal maneuvers enabling him to protect his family's financial well-being and enter that Las Vegas ring to make history.
Litigation is most often the last option. But when it is the only option, decisive action and resolute determination are mandatory. As these clients have shown me, it's wonderful to be smart but perhaps it's better to be determined.