F.M. LaGuardia and Lawyers In the Way

As a law professor and lawyer, I like law and lawyering. But I hate as much as the next guy when lawyers get in the way of people trying to do business. 

In the past year, lawyers have poisoned three separate personal deals of mine, over matters neither I nor the other side needed to care about.  The lawyers were hurting not helping their clients. 

Lawyers need to know, and as a law professor I try to teach, the difference between legal matters and business issues. Lawyers must know the difference and stay out of the way of business matters. 

All this prompts me to reprint below a wonderful letter from the inimitable Mayor of New York, Fiorella La Guardia.  The letter, dated January 29, 1944, is addressed to the heads of various airlines, including American, Eastern, PanAm, and United. 

The  letter’s ultimate paragraph and final words speak volumes to my point, and the letter as a whole is vintage piece of written communication. 

Dear Sirs:

This is the last call on the matter of the runway layout at the new airport.

Thursday, February 3rd, 1944, at my office, City Hall, at 2:30 pm o’clock, come prepared to make any suggestions or forever hold your peace. I have heard some grousing about the present layout which I know is not justified. If you have any cockeyed ideas on tangent runways that have not yet been tried out, keep them for some other time.

I am willing to hear constructive criticism and to receive helpful suggestions.  I cannot compete against white tablecloths and soft pencils. Everyone who gets two drinks under his belt is now designing runway layouts on restaurant tables.

We will have a map here, our consulting engineer will be here, and I expect to have the matter finally, completely and definitely settled.

You may bring anyone you desire from your engineering, technical and piloting staff. Lawyers cannot contribute anything. This is not a legal matter.

Very truly yours,

F.M. La Guardia

No wonder the Mayor’s name graces New York’s most efficient airport.

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7 Responses

  1. Shag from Brookline says:

    And keep in mind La Guardia’s reading on the radio of Sunday comics during a NY newspaper strike in 1945 when I was a teenager. Points can be made well with humor, including La Guardia’s references in the posted letter to lawyers. Alas, very few elected officials have a sense of humor with political effectiveness, resulting in the need for a Jon Stewart and a Stephen Colbert.

  2. A.J. Sutter says:

    “Lawyers must know the difference and stay out of the way of business matters” — Sorry, I can’t agree with this unqualified statement. Much harm has been caused by lawyers who believe that there’s a bright line separating legal and business issues, or that even if the line is blurry, their duty is to keep to one side of it. In my experience, deal-killing lawyers are the ones who are most indifferent to the business relationship between the parties, and tend to get hung up on issues whose big-picture lack of importance they cannot perceive. Maybe this is what you’re trying to get at, but your implicit advice to stick strictly to legal matters is at least as likely to make this problem worse as to avoid it.

    If you are in-house, you need to be very sensitive to business matters, at all times. A good outside counsel should also be sensitive to the business objectives of the client, though it’s hard to succeed at this if one has spent one’s whole career in a law firm, esp. if one’s specialty is far removed from the ordinary-course operations of the client in question. The tricks are (1) not to be such a jerk that you alienate the other side of the deal and lead them to transfer their resentment from you to your client, and (2) more fundamentally, not to usurp the role of business decision-maker, and to make it easier for the person in that role to make an informed and imaginative decision that will help him or her to look good. In my experience, thoughtfully-presented business advice from outside counsel is often appreciated, and even solicited, by clients.

  3. Lawrence Cunningham says:

    AJ–You are correct about what I’m driving at and have offered a richly nuanced statement of it. I especially agree with your point in para. 1 that deal-killing lawyers are often those most indifferent to the business relationship: those prepared to interfere with client goals by injecting themselves into the middle of the action when they do not belong there.

    I’ve recently seen too many lawyers who incorrectly think the issues they are raising are more important than the deal the clients have struck and desire.

    It is thanks to lawyers like those that lawyers generrally get a bad name. In my experience, this occurs too often in certain practice areas, especially personal real property transactions, estate planning and administration, and intellectual property arrangements.

    I am not talking about lawyers doing large transactions for organizational clients, in-house or external, where my experience is that the lawyers understand the business, are sophisticated about the legal context, and help get deals done on terms clients actually want and benefit from.

    Of course, LaGuardia did seem to be talking precisely about them; maybe things have changed.

  4. Shag from Brookline says:

    I haven’t met too many “deal killing lawyers” in my experience of over 50 years of practice here in the Boston area, especially lawyers in the larger law firms who recognize the economics: “Will I get paid if the deal is killed, even though I think it’s a bad deal business-wise?” Keep in mind that some business deals in which lawyers advise clients on the legal aspects end up to be bad business deals. Normally the lawyer is not hired for his business acumen. I have heard too many clients say “I hire lawyers to make deals, not kill them.” So perhaps generally lawyers avoid providing business advice. But there are times when a business deal does not pass the smell test. Should the lawyer just hold his nose?

  5. C. Laser says:

    I wonder if part of the problem comes from lawyers’ general lack of polite win-win negotiating skills. Business people know how to come to an agreement that is mutually beneficial to both sides and are often willing to make concessions to bolster the friendliness of a key business relationship.
    Lawyers, on the other hand, have a lot of fun being adversaries. That is why I really loved Prof. Craver’s negotiating class; he taught us that it is important to learn what the other side would like so that you can see whether there is a way to give it to them in a mutually beneficial way, not so that you can see how to keep it from them.

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