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Winning and losing is in the eye of the beholder

I am frequently asked whether I won or lost a case. It doesn’t seem like a complicated question, except maybe when you are asking a lawyer. Then, whether you win, lose or draw depends entirely on how that person defines what is a win, loss or draw.

The summer after my first year of law school, I worked at the Office of the Public Defender in Baltimore City with a team of three attorneys in the felony division. One day, one of the attorneys I worked with mentioned how his colleague hadn’t lost a case in more than 10 years. How was that possible? Does that mean every client he defended was found not guilty and released?

Well, no. I later found out that if you “beat the top count,” they considered it a win.

In criminal law, a win could be defined as beating the top count or beating all counts. A win also could be defined as when the results of the case were better than expected or if the matter was resolved without a trial. Or a win could be defined as your client not spending any time in jail or receiving a disposition that can be later expunged.

In family law, a win could be when the court grants everything you requested. Would that mean a loss would be anytime the court didn’t grant everything you requested? A win could be defined as having more money, rights or access when the case ended than when it started. Or a win could be defined as meeting or exceeding the expectations you set for your client regarding the anticipated results. Or a win could be defined as getting more than nothing but less than what you asked.

If all parties receive some of what they asked, but not all, or if the case is settled before trial, do we call it a draw, or do all parties claim victory?

The way I define a win is even more vague, because winning and losing is more about whether the results are fair and just in my own mind, and I know that what is fair and just to me is likely to be slanted and biased towards my client.

How do you define wins and losses?