The Franchise Standoff: The Cowboy
By Wendy Webb
Thundering across the wide expanse of South Dakota’s Custer State Park, franchise attorney J. Michael Dady is on horseback chasing buffalo. Make no mistake, this isn’t some sissy cattle drive for city slickers roughing it without their lattes and laptops. It’s South Dakota’s annual Fall Buffalo Roundup, where 35 cowboys – Dady among them -push a herd of 1,500 buffalo through some of the roughest terrain in the state.
“They have to believe you’re a cowboy to get on this buffalo drive,” Dady smiles broadly and leans back in his chair. “I’m not saying I am, but I am pleased that other people believe that I am.”
At one point during the drive, the animals stampede.
“The trick” says Dady, “is to nudge them a bit, and turn them in the direction you want them to go.”
One gets the feeling that Dady is an expert in nudging opponents in the right direction, be they buffalos or businessmen.
Sitting in his office furnished with deep leather chairs, bright southwestern printed sofas, weathered oak desks, and a collection of western art that includes a few antique rifles, it’s easy to forget you are actually 40 floors above the bustle of downtown Minneapolis. It feels more like a lodge at the Grand Canyon. Looking out the window is somewhat of a shock – one expects to see majestic purple mountains, not the Minneapolis skyline. Dady himself is a bit of a contrast. Dressed in cowboy boots and blue jeans, he doesn’t exactly fit the textbook definition of a buttoned-down lawyer. He wouldn’t want to.
Dady represents the little guy – franchisees, distributors, dealers. He’s the man they call when they’re being forced out of business unfairly, when their livelihood is gone as a result of what they see as unscrupulous and underhanded tactics, when corporate maneuvering has left them with nothing.
When clients come to him, he wants to know three things, right off the bat: Have they been treated unfairly? Have they been damaged by the unfair treatment? Can the people who did it pay for the damages?
“If clients answer ‘yes’ to those questions, and if I believe them, I’ll consider taking the case,” he explains.
Dady has stared down some formidable opponents on behalf of his clients, opponents like Anheuser-Busch, Arby’s, Country Kitchen, Coca-Cola, Ford Motor Company, Hardees, National Car Rental, Taco Bell, Wendy’s International, and the list goes on.
In more than half of his cases, Dady’s clients don’t pay him unless he wins. They can’t. Many have been wiped out before they come to him. And for Dady, who has risked his own firm on more than one occasion to take a case, it’s a labor of love. It’s personal. His first client was his own father.
Dady grew up on an Indian reservation in Sisseton, a tiny town on the border of North and South Dakota, where in 1897, his great grandparents were among the first white settlers.
“The Irish side of the family ran a tavern,” he says, explaining that his father eventually built up a Hamm’s beer distributorship.
Although Dady drove his dad’s beer trucks throughout high school he wasn’t destined to enter the family business. He left the reservation for Saint John’s University in Minnesota, where he intended to become a Catholic priest.
“I was knocked out by the one-two punch of Latin and celibacy,” he laughs. But, loving the idea of giving a homily and being able to pass the collection plate on a regular basis, he was drawn to the law. Soon after he graduated from the University of Minnesota law school in 1975, Dady received a phone call from his father that set the course for his future.
“Olympia Brewery bought Hamms,” Dady says, “and proceeded to terminate 251 Hamms distributors around the country, including my father. He got a notice saying: ‘You’re done in 30 days.’ So he called me. He asked if there was anything we could do about it.”
The young Dady went to see a law school professor, who told him there was nothing he could do.
“When you see your family’s business being wiped out,” Dady smiles, “you’re going to get a second opinion.”
And he did. His own. Dady hit the law books, reading every dealer-termination case there was.
“I had the sense: This isn’t right. My family had been doing the job, they had always performed. Can you just yank the rug out from somebody who has been performing? I thought: ‘If it’s unfair, it should be unlawful.’”
With the assistance of some of his fellow lawyers at Lindquist & Vennum, P.A. (Dady hadn’t yet taken the bar exam), he filed lawsuit and got a restraining order against Hamms.
They saved his father’s franchise and kept him in business. The case received national press and soon, other Hamms distributors came calling.
“We represented 34 Hamms distributors in seven states. We settled a few years later for millions of dollars.”
And thus began the career of one of the nation’s top franchise lawyers, so named in The Best Lawyers in America, a reference guide listing of the top lawyers by state and specialty. He is one of only three franchise lawyers listed from Minnesota, including Thomas MacIntosh. Dady is, without a doubt, the only cowboy among them.
Some attorneys, including Ed Glennon, an early mentor of Dady’s, argue that a good trial lawyer should take any case on any side and win it.
“I decided that didn’t work for me,” Dady says. “Life is short. I want to do what I believe in. I want to represent franchisees and dealers and distributors. There are all kinds of people lines up to represent the big guys. But there are few people who are experts in representing the little guys.”
And never the twain shall meet, at least in Dady’s law firm, Dady & Gardner, P.A. The firm wouldn’t consider taking a case on behalf of a franchiser.
“We don’t want to push the law one way on one day, and push it in the other direction the next day,” he says. “If something is unfair, it should be found unlawful, and we’re going to work as hard as we can to make that happen.
*reprinted with permission of Franchise Times Copyright 1999