Four Tips for Managing a Legal Bully

Just like people, businesses run into bullies in a variety of contexts, including various situations. By bully, we don’t mean the key customer on which your business may be quite dependent, or a true high liability risk situation, but rather situations where your antagonist seemingly is demanding more of your company’s time and energy than is warranted by the nature of the issue. They threaten and they bluster, yet they seem more interested in monopolizing your resources than actually solving problems, to the extent there even is one. The issue seems more personal than it should be.

These situations might include:

  • – An employee demanding accommodations beyond what is reasonable and necessary for a health situation.
  • – A company with which you have or had a business relationship that is demanding payment or performance beyond what you thought you agreed to.
  • – An employee of a government agency who seems personally invested in an issue involving your company.

You undoubtedly have your own examples. Smaller, newer or younger businesses may be especially susceptible to these bullies. You take all such situations seriously and never want to blindly assume a problem is not bigger than you may initially recognize, but there are many situations where you are being badgered and need a strategy.

Bill Nolan
Bill Nolan

You don’t want to take the bait and do something foolish in response that gives the person anything to work with on the legal front. To take the first example above, too aggressively responding to the employee may give an employee who had no strong legal claim a claim for retaliation. So you certainly want to respond carefully and strategically.

Maybe the best strategy is to fight fire with fire, and have your lawyer send a fire and brimstone letter to the offending party. But sometimes that may escalate a situation unnecessarily, and end up costing you more money.

As always, discuss your strategy with that lawyer you trust to tell you what you need but not sell you what you don’t, and often the approach of gradually letting the air out of the balloon and showing the bully he/she is not going to run your business is effective.

Here are four tips that make up that strategy:

1. Respond quickly enough so you cannot be accused of being unresponsive. As noted above, these situations give you the “opportunity” to make a bigger problem out of a smaller one. Should this lead to an actual legal dispute, you want to be in the position of telling the third party decisionmaker (judge, jury, government agency) a good story about how you responded. At some point, stonewalling may be your best strategy, but usually not.

2. HOWEVER, respond slowly enough so it is clear you are in charge. Do not let this person run your business or think that he/she is running your business. This is also a tool for managing your time spent on the matter, because every one of your responses is met with an immediate and lengthy response, you are back where you started. Go about your business, then respond at the last possible time that still satisfies item  one above. For many of these people, this bullying is their way of doing business, so taking some time also gives them the opportunity to find something or somebody else to be mad at as well.

3. Communicate in writing. You want a record, and you do not want to spend your time on lengthy phone calls then later find that what you said is misrepresented. Most of us have the technology to avoid phone calls we want to avoid, and while in many contexts (such as serving your customers and clients!) that is a bad practice, in this case it can be a good practice. Perhaps even tell the individual you are only going to communicate in writing. It shows you are going to hold him/her accountable. It forces unreasonable communications into a form that can be used against him/her in future disputes, and, again, it shows you are going to control this situation.

4. Have a point person. Don’t let the bully shop around for different opinions on your team. Make sure all of your team is following the same rules for communicating about the situation, and channel all communications to one strategically selected person. Again, it may be advisable to directly communicate that to your problem child and demonstrate control.

That point person could be your lawyer. Of course there is usually expense to that, and strategically you may not want to give your adversary the satisfaction of knowing you have had to engage counsel, but at the same time it is a strong statement that the individual is going to be held accountable that may be effective.

I have seen this approach work a number of times in a variety of contexts. Have some patience, be firm but polite, use the tools you have to control the communications, and get this person out of your hair so you can back to the true mission of your business.