“Discourage litigation. Persuade your neighbors to compromise whenever you can. As a peacemaker the lawyer has superior opportunity of being a good man. There will still be business enough.” – Abraham Lincoln.
I was reminded of this quote when I read a recent Above The Law article discussing the role of lawyers in society. While clients are wrapped up in the idea of getting their day in court, and lawyers are zealously litigating on behalf of their clients, the big picture is often lost. Most people who end up on the doorsteps of a law firm are frequently hurt and angry because they have been wronged. They make the decision to consult a lawyer when they are at their lowest and most vulnerable point. By asking clients the customary, necessary, initial questions about their problem, we inadvertently remind them of all the petty and inconsequential details about the circumstances surrounding that problem. It is at that time that the client wants us to ardently and obsessively advocate for them and do whatever it takes for the problem-maker or the “tortfeasor” to repent.
The author of this article compares litigation attorneys to skilled mercenaries and suggests the original conflict-resolution means was physical fights; once we became a civilized society, we decided to have laws and lawyers to do inherently the same work. Unfortunately, suing people has become too easy. The words “I’ll sue you” or “I’ll see you in court” are thrown about on a regular basis and people with the means to do so, actually mean those words.
It sounds funny coming from me, since litigation is my bread and butter. But I will be the first one to tell my clients the true realities of the litigation process, especially if they have a decent settlement offer on the table. Many of my clients are not familiar with the court system and the lengthy and time consuming manner in which lawsuits progress. There’s also the expense — to client and lawyer. Litigation in general is not lucrative for small and solo firms. Lawyers may jump at the opportunity to tell you about “that one case” that paid off their mortgage, student loans or bought them that Mercedes. As a whole, however, litigation takes up a lot more of your time and resources that could better be spent negotiating settlements.
Lawyers may get a bigger fee at the end of a trial but that doesn’t necessarily equate to the client getting more money, especially one who waited a few years for his or her day in court. At the end of the day, it is our job to act in the best interest of the client and tell them exactly what they are up against so they can make an informed decision about whether to accept the settlement offered or pursue litigation. I find myself constantly telling clients that this will not be like an episode of “Suits.” Several have responded with “I know, it will probably be more like ‘Law & Order,’” because you know, that’s more realistic.
Unfortunately, there are many disputed matters where clients don’t have the luxury of pondering over a settlement offer, at which point you have no choice but to go to war. But even that conflict can be fought methodically and prudently. It’s important to pick your battles and remember that winning a battle doesn’t mean you have won the war. Because ultimately, as that 1850s lawyer said, we are peacemakers, not inciters of conflict.