Friday, December 24, 2010

"Isn't There Anyone Who Knows What Christmas (the 2010 legal holiday) is All About?"

My series of posts on our country’s “legal” holidays began out of concern that, for many, these days were just another day off.  My idea was that, perhaps, some reflection on the reasoning behind our national holidays was in order. Well, it turns out that the Christmas federal holiday is, in fact, just another day off, legally at least, and this year, as December 25th is a Saturday, that legal day off happens a day earlier.

While the Christmas religious observance is centuries old, a federal Christmas holiday was not recognized until 1870. More surprising, the constitutionality of the legal holiday was not challenged until 1999. In her decision in Ganulin v. United States (ultimately supported by the U.S. Court of Appeals and the Supreme Court), District Court Judge Susan J. Dlott concludes that a Christmas federal holiday does not violate the First Amendment of our Constitution: “By giving federal employees a paid vacation day on Christmas, the government is doing no more than recognizing the cultural significance of the holiday.”

Judge Dlott’s appreciation of the cultural significance of Christmas is most clearly illustrated, not by her formal decision, but by her Dr. Seuss-inspired poem:

The court will address
Plaintiff's seasonal confusion
Erroneously believing Christmas
Merely a religious intrusion.

Whatever the reason
Constitutional or other
Christmas is not
An act of Big Brother!

Christmas is about joy
And giving and sharing
It is about the child within us
It is mostly about caring!

One is never jailed
For not having a tree
For not going to church
For not spreading glee!

The court will uphold
Seemingly contradictory clauses
Decreeing "The Establishment" and "Santa"
Both worthwhile "Claus(es)"!

We are all better for Santa
The Easter Bunny too
And maybe the Great Pumpkin
To name just a few!

An extra day off
Is hardly high treason
It may be spent as you wish
Regardless of reason.

The court having read
The lessons of Lynch
Refuses to play
The role of the Grinch!

There is room in this country
And in all our hearts too
For different convictions
And a day off too!

The ditty actually lays out the judge’s legal reasoning. Employment lawyer Philip Miles’s post “Christmas and the Constitution” walks through those legal principles, if you want to read more.

On Christmas night, 1776, General George Washington crossed an ice-clogged Delaware River to take the fight to the British and thus reinvigorated a flagging war for independence. As bold as his move was, it pales in comparison to the idea that we could create the world’s first nation-sized, secular republic. Before America, nations existed by virtue of coercive political authority and common religious convictions. Now, mutual respect for individual religious and cultural traditions is part of the glue that we, “the people,” use to hold our country together.

So in the United States, on December 25th (or 24th, this year) you can celebrate the birth of Christ, the visit of a jolly old elf, or a day not spent at work. It’s up to you, and no matter your faith or absence of faith, that is a blessing. So to paraphrase Linus, from A Charlie Brown Christmas another of our Christmas culture classics: "That’s what the legal Christmas holiday is all about, America."

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Being Sued is Not #1. A Lawyer's Tale of Social Media Worries and Business.

I just finished describing my social media story in an article the Denver Bar Association asked me to write. If lawyers can learn something from my story, then maybe this adapted version might be helpful to you and your business.

Two years ago my social media bio consisted of a poorly-utilized LinkedIn account and an announced aversion to the very idea of “friending” business and community connections. Today, I’m 4100+ tweets into Twitter. I have Facebook friends that are my friends, but many more who share my interests in business and community. I have this blog and a spot on Huffington Post as well as guest posts in other blogs. And I have an under-utilized LinkedIn account.

The intersection of social media and the law has even become part of my legal practice. My seminars on the subject are always well-attended (if only the same was true for my more traditional topics). While there are some serious legal issues to keep in mind (and post on here at a later date), in the real world harm to your business is much, much more likely from the mundane pitfalls of looking stupid and wasting your time.

For most businesses, B2B or B2C, profit or nonprofit, branding—making yourself more attractive and memorable— and networking on an unprecedented scale are two primary reasons for using social media. The good and bad of any branding effort or in-person networking event applies to your social media as well, only multiplied by a factor that is always bigger for the bad than the good, and it’s forever. The offhand remark you might regret making at a cocktail party gets passed around and around in social media and saved on servers across the globe.

Reduce the risk of a dumb post going viral by setting your social media goals up front and applying those goals in every tweet, Facebook comment and their kin. Goals will also reduce the time you will waste. Wasted time is inevitable; staying on goal limits the huge time traps inherent in the games, quizzes and videos that will stream by you. I use the blocking/filter/list features found in most social media to segregate or eliminate the time-wasters.

Another sure way to waste your time is making your social media all about you and your great business. The “social” in social media means you should be sharing useful information (which is not limited to promoting your latest blog post) and by engaging in conversations that relate to your goals.

Not to mean that your social media should be all business, either. I reminded the lawyers that clients don’t hire lawyers, people hire people; that same may be true in your business. If so, don’t be afraid to show a little of your personal life, but not too much about your kids or your vacations, please. Something on your hobbies or activities is good (several of my connections are road cyclists, and now they know I am, too). If you or your business is active in charitable or community efforts, tell us about it and why that activity is important, and don’t forget to “tag” the charity (in Facebook include “@” before the name) so your comments can be seen by others who support it, too.

Your social media should have a style reflective of your personality, or at least the part of it you use when you talk with clients. Will your intended audience be engaged by posts written like a press release? Probably not. No Funny Lawyers was started on not much more than the whim that if I could bottle the non-technical and sometimes funny (or at least attempted) explanations of business law I give my clients, then maybe some other business owners might find enough value in them to pick up the phone.

A word of advice on blogs. There are a bazillion blogs, but few are on topics and updated regularly enough to be relevant to your potential clients (and the search engines they will use to find you). Be intentional in your decision to blog: pick a subject, a voice, and an audience, and make a commitment to set aside the hours it will take to post good content regularly. Then take some time to learn at least the basics of SEO (search engine optimization), or talk to an SEO consultant, so that your good content can be found.

If you don’t want to leap as far as a blog, following most of the guidelines I’ve touched on will make your Facebook page, LinkedIn profile, or Twitter feed something like a blog and, thus, valuable to those interested in the business concerns that matter to you. By sharing and showing, not telling, your knowledge and dedication to your business and your customers, you will be an engaged and valuable member of the business social media community.

Thursday, November 25, 2010

Thanksgiving Day 2010: An Invitation to be Grateful

Today, America comes to tables laden with individual expressions of a common menu, a metaphor for the nation itself. Today, America pauses, if but for a moment, in collective recognition that despite our differences and our problems, we have many reasons to be grateful. Law, thankfully, has little to do with Thanksgiving. A shared day of Thanksgiving is one of our oldest national traditions, but the federal Thanksgiving Day legal holiday was not established until 1941.

It’s been my own tradition to use this blog to examine our national legal holidays. A rich tradition of invitations to recognize our blessings and be grateful contained in years of presidential Thanksgiving Proclamations, gives perspective to our mandated Thanksgiving legal holiday.

George Washington issued the first Thanksgiving Proclamation in 1789. There were no turkeys (pardoned or not) or pilgrims in that first Presidential Thanksgiving message. Washington was not thinking about religious separatists or a harvest feast at their settlement at Plymouth; instead Washington wanted the nation be thankful for the end of war and the establishment of our new government and Constitution. The idea of Thanksgiving, Washington notes, started with a request from Congress:
Whereas it is the duty of all Nations to acknowledge the providence of Almighty God, to obey his will, to be grateful for his benefits, and humbly to implore his protection and favor--and whereas both Houses of Congress have by their joint Committee requested me "to recommend to the People of the United States a day of public thanksgiving and prayer to be observed by acknowledging with grateful hearts the many signal favors of Almighty God especially by affording them an opportunity peaceably to establish a form of government for their safety and happiness."
Congress was not unanimous in that request, however. Disagreements over the authority of the federal government are a national tradition even older than Thanksgiving. Thomas Tudor Tucker, Representative from South Carolina, after questioning whether our new Constitution would earn the people’s gratitude, concluded: "If a day of thanksgiving must take place, let it be done by the authority of the several States."

The modern Thanksgiving observance, and an unbroken string of 148 consecutive presidential proclamations, begins with Abraham Lincoln. Lincoln, not the pilgrims, established the tradition of the last Thursday of November as day of thanksgiving and praise “with one heart and one voice by the whole American people.” Prior to Lincoln, Thanksgiving bounced around the calendar with observances from November to January to April. Lincoln’s Thanksgiving was less about harvest and more about perseverance and healing.

Prefacing his 1863 invitation to observe a day of thanksgiving, Lincoln proclaims:

In the midst of a civil war of unequaled magnitude and severity, which has sometimes seemed to foreign states to invite and to provoke their aggression, peace has been preserved with all nations, order has been maintained, the laws have been respected and obeyed, and harmony has prevailed everywhere, except in the theater of military conflict, while that theater has been greatly contracted by the advancing armies and navies of the Union. Needful diversions of wealth and of strength from the fields of peaceful industry to the national defense have not arrested the plow, the shuttle, or the ship; the ax has enlarged the borders of our settlements, and the mines, as well of iron and coal as of the precious metals, have yielded even more abundantly than heretofore. Population has steadily increased notwithstanding the waste that has been made in the camp, the siege, and the battlefield, and the country, rejoicing in the consciousness of augmented strength and vigor, is permitted to expect continuance of years with large increase of freedom
Thanksgiving takes place in the context of our national life: Washington and the new government, Lincoln and the Civil War, Franklin Roosevelt and the Great Depression. The tradition that the Christmas shopping season, so important to retailers to this day, begins with Thanksgiving (well, it used to) confronted the calendar in 1939. In that year, the last Thursday of November, Lincoln’s date, was in fact the fifth Thursday, November 30th. In a controversial move designed to help struggling retailers, Roosevelt moved his Thanksgiving Proclamation up a week to the second-to-last Thursday in November.

In keeping with Representative Tucker’s response to President Washington, several states responded to President Roosevelt by deciding that Thanksgiving should remain the last Thursday in November. Lincoln’s one heart, one voice was lost.

Perspective returned in a couple years. On December 26, 1941, the Thanksgiving Day federal holiday was created, with a compromise that the legal holiday be the fourth, not last, Thursday of November. Only days after America’s entry into World War II, it seems we understood: we have our differences and our problems, but America has many reasons to be grateful.