"We'll just get the lawyer to send them a letter. That should put them in the mood to settle this quickly."
How many times have you heard words to that effect in business (or your personal life, if you know a lot of A-type folks)?
In the case of real estate development company Taubman, their decision to intimidate Hank Mishkoff is a textbook case of failing to pursue a mutually beneficial solution in favour of a legal dispute.
Mishkoff received a typical "drop what you're doing or we'll make you suffer" letter from Julie Greenberg, of a patent and copyright law firm, on behalf of Taubman, the owners of a new mall that Mishkoff had created a fan web site for. (Yes, people will create fan web sites about just about anything.)
Instead of running and hiding, Mishkoff cut through the legal crap and tried to get the firm to explain exactly what he was doing that was so terrible. His Taubman Sucks web site is a painfully detailed recounting of the nasty bully tactics the law firm used to attack the fan web site and force its removal. (Warning: unless you have several hours to spare, browse through the Condensed Version on his site.)
As Seth Godin succinctly points out, Ms. Greenberg would have accomplished her firm's goals at very little cost if she had just been polite in her first contact with Mishkoff. Instead, Taubman must have spent hundreds of thousands in legal fees to pursue a case that had little chance of succeeding on its legal merits, and that Mishkoff agreed to settle for $1,000 early on in the battle.
Aggressiveness has its place, but politeness and a conciliatory manner are a good starting point, particularly when dealing with consumer evangelists for your product (in this case a shopping mall). As Godin says, you can always be mean later, if politeness doesn't work.
This story is burning around the Internet and blogs lately. The end result: Mishkoff and his godsend lawyer Paul Levy will be known as the Davids who used truth and the law to defeat an ugly Goliath; and for the next decade people will say, "Oh, you're that Julie Greenberg" when they meet the woman who pissed off a little guy who used the Web to publicize his cause. As for Taubman, this latest boost of negative publicity for a case several years old should boost the Taubman Sucks web site up a few notches in search engines, rightly tarnishing their reputation even more than it already has been.