Not Hammer Time
If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail.
(If you were hoping for MC Hammer, here you go.)
Lawyers usually interpret problems as legal issues. But legal responses can easily make things worse, not better. So it’s important to view any question in the context of the client’s business and life. Many problems would be better addressed outside the courts and the law.
The most important thing I can tell a client is when they don’t need me.
Here are some of the things I try to remember when my clients and friends come to me for advice.
1. Revenge is not a legal remedy. The best you can ever do in civil litigation is to make someone pay money. You can neither fix a problem, nor make someone feel sorry for what they did. Sure, going through a lawsuit is miserable for them. But it will be miserable and expensive for everyone. If someone really wants revenge, then they will never be satisfied with a lawsuit.
2. Lawyering-up escalates disputes more than it resolves them. Sending a legal nastygram sometimes intimidates someone into giving up, but usually it just freaks them out. So they get a lawyer to shoot back a nastiergram. Soon everyone is even angrier and crazier than before. Sending a letter can be a really good idea. But I usually start by helping my client draft a letter from them explaining the problems and offering some reasonable resolution. If they can’t do reasonable, then at least a resolution they can live with.
3. Principles are too expensive. When someone tells me, “It’s not for me, it’s a matter of principle,” I tell them very gently and kindly that I can’t help them. Lawsuits are decided on a case by case basis. Very few lawsuits ever end up changing the world or even changing a defendant’s behavior. Lawsuits are economic leverage to get an economic result. If someone can’t evaluate the risks and potential return on their investment of time, energy, money and sleepless nights, they aren’t ready to deal with litigation.
4. In all 50 states and Canada, it’s perfectly legal to be an asshole. I do a lot of employment law. So I get calls every week wanting help with wrongful termination or harassment. 90% of the time, it involves a personality dispute, power struggle, culture clash or some combination. It rarely involves illegal treatment based on a protected factor. So I have to explain that just because someone has been treated unfairly, doesn’t mean what happened was illegal. In most cases, being a jerk is legal.
5. Get help for substance abuse first. A majority of criminal matters and a significant number of civil matters, especially family and employment law issues involve substance abuse. Bad stuff happens when you’re completely wasted a lot of the time. When it’s clear that one of the people involved in the problem has substance abuse issues, it’s almost impossible to resolve the matter without addressing the alcohol or drug addiction. It’s good to know professionals who treat substance abuse and the resources available in your community.
The best way to work with people is to actually help them and develop trust. That includes knowing when to step back and tell them no they don’t have a legal problem, or that the available legal solutions won’t really help.