In this post, which follows our earlier discussion of legal strategy, we’ll offer examples of companies situated within each of the five pathways. As Robert and I mentioned in our article, most companies follow the compliance pathway. Such companies insource legal compliance through their in-house legal department, or they may choose to partner with an external compliance verification service. A firm such as ISN, for example, has built a business handling compliance issues for corporations and their subcontractors. According to the Society of Compliance and Corporate Ethics, compliance is a thriving industry due to the increased legal penalties and regulations that companies face in today’s heightened legal environment.
The avoidance pathway is less frequent, given the high stakes and liability attached to this type of strategy. General Motors may have engaged in avoidance if it misled regulators about its faulty ignition switches. Avoidance issues tend to be costly to deal with, given the loss of trust and enhanced penalties that arise from this behavior.
The more interesting and rare pathways involve prevention, value, and transformation. An interesting and controversial prevention legal strategy involves trademark policing, which, in its most egregious form, devolves into the unethical and legally dubious practice of trademark bullying. For example, Chik-fil-A employs an aggressive strategy that targets large and small companies alike and uses the threat of trademark litigation to prevent anyone from encroaching upon its trademarked brands and brand equity. Setting aside the overreaching and legally dubious aspects of this approach, some companies legitimately use a preventive legal strategy that involves cease and desist letters, litigation, and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office administrative oppositions to protect the value of their brands and advertising. The Chik-fil-A case serves as a useful reminder, however, that aggressive legal strategies may push the boundaries of ethical behavior, sound legal argument, and public opinion.
Two recent examples illustrate how employing a legal strategy in the value pathway can generate positive and tangible financial returns. The first instance involves hedge funds investing in a corporate acquisition target and then filing suit in Delaware to challenge the valuation and seek an appraisal from the court. This legal strategy is referred to as appraisal arbitrage. Many of these cases either settle or result in substantially higher prices for the party seeking the appraisal.
Another value strategy that has been in the headlines recently involves tax inversions. Burger King’s recent decision to acquire Canada’s Tim Horton’s will yield business synergies, but it also exploits a legal maneuver allowed under current tax law permitting a company acquiring a foreign entity to reincorporate in the foreign jurisdiction. By reincorporating in Canada, Burger King will effectively lower its tax rate from 35% to 15%.
The last and rarest of legal strategies is transformation. This occurs when the top executives in a corporation integrate law as a core aspect of the firm’s business model to achieve sustainable competitive advantage. Few companies are able to achieve this strategic pathway, and it’s certainly not for everyone. One company that notoriously used law to achieve abnormally large market share and margins in the ticket processing industry was Ticketmaster. The ticket service provider used venue ticket licensing contracts that included several key provisions such as long term renewable exclusivity terms (up to 5 years), and more infamously, fee sharing provisions. Ticketmaster’s business model was, essentially, to take the bad rap for charging exorbitant convenience fees and sharing those fees with the venue, thus contractually locking them into a highly profitable and exclusive business system. It didn’t hurt that Ticketmaster’s pioneering CEO Fred Rosen was a Wall Street attorney turned impresario.
Another company that is showing signs of attempting to pursue a transformative legal strategy is Tesla Motors. Tesla’s recent announcement to offer open licensing terms for its battery and charging station patents illustrates a pioneering mentality that seeks to build a business ecosystem with other auto manufacturers. By doing so, Tesla has made a major legal bet that giving up patent exclusivity rights in the short term will yield long-term competitive advantage by helping to diffuse electric battery and recharging technology. The other legal strategy Tesla has pursued relates to its pioneering distribution model of direct sales to the consumer, bypassing the traditional dealership model established for conventional automobiles. To achieve this direct-to-customer model, Tesla has engaged state regulators to achieve exemptions from state dealership franchise laws. Tesla is clearly strategizing and innovating along many fronts that involve business, technology and law. It remains to be seen, however, whether these legal strategies will offer Tesla a long-term sustainable competitive advantage.
In our next and last post, we’ll discuss our experience teaching the five pathways of legal strategy to business students and how it has been a valuable resource in the classroom.
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