The Legal Environment: Courts, Alternative Dispute Resolution, and Agency
by Rosemary Hartigan and Paula O'Callaghan, Professors, UMGC
Why Should I Care about the Law?
Why do businesspeople need to know anything about the law? Some people think of lawyers in business as a necessary evil. There is some truth to the "necessary" part: if everyone were scrupulously honest and had photographic memories regarding all statements uttered that could constitute promises, perhaps lawyers wouldn't be needed. But, alas, we are mere mortals with failing memories and sometimes failing ethics.
A Systems View of the Roles of the Lawyer and the Manager
One view of the respective roles of the lawyer and the manager in a business is that the lawyer should guide the manager in analyzing risk—this is in the lawyer's training, and it's the lawyer's responsibility to accurately convey the nature of legal risks to the client; however, it is up to the manager to make the final business call.
Generally speaking, lawyers are inherently conservative when it comes to risk. Managers can't abdicate responsibility for making the business call. This is one of the main reasons for managers to have legal literacy. You need to know when you need legal advice, and then what to do with it. Sometimes, basic legal knowledge is necessary on the front lines of dealing with customers and coworkers.
Knowing something about the law can assist you in prevention. Legal analysis skills help you to avert lawsuits and other unpleasantness so that you can stay focused on running your business. However, there will be instances in which you have to bring a legal-related matter to closure. Perhaps you've taken over from an executive who has left the department or company and left behind a problem that requires a legal solution. Or, you did something that triggered a legal response from a customer or vendor. If you know the relevant legal rules for your area of business, you'll know when it's appropriate to involve legal counsel.
Let's begin with a basic overview of the two types of law.
Differences between Civil and Criminal Law
American society highly values ingenuity and entrepreneurship, but there are legal limits on the conduct of commerce. Some of these limits are statutory, which means that a law-making body has enacted a specific law to regulate a specific activity (e.g., the Sherman Act statute regulating antitrust). Some of these legal limits are found in the common law (e.g., tort law imposing liability on an infinite variety of behaviors). Most of the legal limits on business fall into the category of civil law.
One big difference between civil and criminal law is in the potential penalties. Civil law liability carries penalties that are monetary—so-called damages. The culpable party pays damages in an amount the court believes will make the wronged party whole. This contrasts with criminal law, where the possible penalties are limits on personal freedom (such as incarceration or death), although monetary penalties are also possible (such as a fine payable to the government or restitution to the victim).
There is one major exception to the rule that business contracts do not involve criminal penalties for breach: this is in government contracting. Because so many students at UMGC have employment that involves contracts with the US government in some manner, this is often a point of confusion.
Government contracting is a special circumstance where the contracts involve civil law, yet breach of contract potentially involves criminal penalties. The criminal penalties can include jail time for serious violations. Those of you who work in this area probably have attended or will attend a professional development seminar about contract compliance in which you learn the particulars of your contractual obligations.
Trend Developments in Business Law
The past 20 years have seen a rise in the criminalization of business law. While it's still true that no one goes to prison for breaking the terms of a contract (notable exception: government contracting), there has been a marked increase in the number of business-related activities that carry possible criminal penalties.
Business activities that are punishable by criminal penalties (in addition to fines and damages) are known as white-collar crimes. Many of you are familiar with famous cases involving business people—Martha Stewart (ImClone), Kenneth Lay (Enron), Dennis Kozlowski (Tyco), and, of course, Bernie Madoff. Those businesspeople got themselves into the criminal justice system by committing fraud, lying to federal authorities, or otherwise invoking specific laws to deter commercial crimes such as insider trading of stock. The possible penalties for white-collar crime do include imprisonment as well as fines and damages.
When you see a businessperson in handcuffs doing the "perp walk," ask yourself, "What law has allegedly been broken?" Typically, there will be a law (statute) or a regulation (e.g., Securities and Exchange Commission [SEC] rule) that allegedly has been transgressed.