Words On Words

The Miami Herald's Business Monday Book Club.
Click here for information.

Music Reviews and Features
Dion Dimucci

Lester Bangs in Buffalo

Lester Bangs in "Almost Famous"

The Cure In Concert

Peal Jam In Concert

History of Warner Brothers Music

Creolina's Cajun/Creole

People's Bar-B-Que and Soul Food


Navigating through the legal landscape
Savvy firms must manage legal issues like they do every else.

Make the Rules or Your Rivals Will. G. Richard Shell. Crown. 288 pages.

rpachter@wordsonwords.comClick to purchase.

If you're young, dumb or naive, you might believe that the law is absolute and unambiguous, but it's far from it. There are countless interpretations and wide latitude taken in deciding which laws are applied in almost any situation. Then there are matters of precedent, politics, prevailing authorities and more. Laymen may consider them technicalities, but lawyers feast on these ambiguities and variables.

G. Richard Shell is a professor of legal studies and management at the Wharton School. He has constructed an engrossing and instructive volume dealing with the law and how savvy firms and their leaders must plan and manage legal issues in the same way they handle other important aspects of their business.

Throughout history, the difference between success and failure is often a result of dealing with laws and the people who make and enforce them. Sometimes it's done in illegal or immoral ways, or conducted within the context and the protection of existing laws and ''normal'' standards of conduct - or discretion, but bribes and extortion are not infrequent practices.

As we've observed before, it's often a matter of engaging the appropriate advocate for the company's cause. Whether they're brutish bagmen or Gucci loafered lobbyists, their clout with governmental gatekeepers frequently smoothes otherwise bumpy or blocked paths. Campaign contributions, honoraria and other incentives act to lubricate -- or brake -- the wheels of justice.

Though Shell touches on these areas, the bulk of his text is devoted to more or less legitimate means of navigating through the legal landscape. He starts by recounting the case of Henry Ford, whose mass manufacturing innovations were subject to a legal challenge by an incumbent group of automobile companies. They claimed that a patent on an internal combustion engine -- not the one used by Ford -- effectively prevented his company from making and selling cars. Other companies not a part of the patent-holders group had capitulated, but Ford held out and ultimately prevailed in the courts, which ruled that the patent did not apply
Shell goes on to compare Ford's case with that of Shawn Fanning, the inventor of Napster, the computer file-sharing program. There are similarities, to be sure, but Shell uses the Napster story to illustrate how pure legalities are not always the deciding factors. Frequently, there are other issues, politics, entrenched interests and divergent factors that play into each case, as there were here, since Napster was shut down.

Shell's book isn't just a collection of history lessons. He uses each anecdote to illustrate, and in some cases advocate, a line of defense or attack. Though some of the stories involve technical or arcane issues, he does his best to present his points clearly and in an entertaining manner.
Interesting stuff, all told, and a worthwhile addition to one's business library.

Like business books? Join the club.