The movie studio Warner Brothers and the comedians the Marx Brothers were once involved in particularly contentious exchange. The Marx Brothers planned to parody scenes from the classic film Casablanca. Warner Brothers, however, raised objections to the project. In a no-nonsense letter, Warner Brothers threatened severe legal action if the Marx Brothers continued as planned.
The Marx Brothers, for their turn, wrote a letter back to Warner Brothers, stating they “were brothers long before you were.” Although completely farcical, the Marx Brothers wrote that they would enforce ownership and control over the word brothers, as long as Warner Brothers maintained its stronghold on Casablanca.
This absurd exchange became legendary in movie circles, and represents a broader lesson about overbearing management .
“Fair use” clauses in copyright would likely protect the parody proposed by the Marx Brothers; nevertheless, even if Warner Brothers had a legal leg to stand on, was it worth it?
Money is a two-way valve that comes and goes. Reputation, on the other hand, is difficult to earn, easy to lose, and impossible to recover once lost
Casablanca went on to receive three Academy Awards, despite the fact that it was never expected to perform out of the ordinary . It was the seventh highest grossing film in 1943. Today, it remains one of the most watched films of all time.
The exchange with the Marx Brothers turned Warner Brothers into Big Brother, aggressively enforcing policy and overseeing the “little people” in a menacing way.
Stewart McKelvey from Lexology warns, “While it’s true that cease and decist letters can have a strong deterrent effect on a rogue, if it is only a bluff without a solid legal foundation, the sender loses much credibility and the recipient capitalizes even more on the ‘culture jamming’ purpose of the satire or parody by waving around the ineffective cease and desist letter.”
The Marx Brothers’ ridiculous rendering of Casablanca could have served as a way to re-release a version of the film or increase legitimate viewership.
Law firms, for their part, should also learn to pick their battles.
Here are a few guidelines:
- Employee benefits – avoid the revolt
Are employees calling in sick for work because you haven’t approved extra holiday time? Are employees disgruntled that they are not free to work from home one day a week, so that they can have lunch with their young children?
These are all small sacrifices to avoid grumbling and discontent among your staff. Consider bespoke benefits at your firm. A one-size fits all policy may work against your desire for a happier and more productive workforce.
- Client discounts – don’t sweat the small stuff
Is your client arguing over a single line-item cost? Perhaps it’s for photocopying; maybe it is the fee for a phone consultation. Whatever the cost, if it’s small, don’t sweat it.
In the long term, if your clients feel that they are being heard, your firm will gain reputation and repeat business. In the moment, you may feel in the right (and maybe you are) but it’s decidedly wrong to fight over small incidentals when the choices for alternative legal services and rival law practices are vast.
- Threating letters – watch your language
Watch out for adopting threatening language in your communications, from cease-and-desist letters to regular emails
Monica Sanders for LegalZoom explains, “Creating a negative mood will only lessen your chances of reaching an agreement. The idea of the letter is to show the other person you are serious and give them the chance to consider their legal choices. It is not an opportunity to insult them or create an adversarial relationship.”
Remember, in the digital age, whatever you put in writing lasts forever.
“If the dispute ends up in court, remember that the same judge who will hear your case will read your demand letter.”
If it’s not the judge, it’s possible even your own firm’s internal audits will revive a particularly nasty email you wrote, and it may be grounds for dismissal. In general, write everything as if it will be read one day by your boss, a judge, and your mother.
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 The story about Warner Brothers and the Marx Brothers comes from Lawrence Lessig’s book Free Culture. Read and download it for free here.
 Ebert, Roger (September 15, 1996). “Casablanca (1942)”. Chicago Sun-Times. Archived from the original on February 28, 2010. Retrieved March 18, 2010.