My job sometimes is rescuing attorneys, often from themselves. Perhaps the quintessential illustration is a comment made by a corporate general counsel recently, whose organization was responsible for a number of victims, including fatalities. Her opening line to me was, “We’re not the empathy department in this company.” However, the reason she was talking to me was that the organization was about to be inundated with lawsuits from survivors, additional victims not yet known, and the unintended negative visibility that generally accompanies these situations, especially when your organization is considered a perpetrator.
Clearly, the adversarial system works in the courtroom—a rigorously controlled process and environment. Outside the courtroom, the adversarial attitude quickly brands one as cold, arrogant, callous, and anti-victim.
One of my clients is among the largest losers in an intellectual property lawsuit involving copyright infringement. For some 25 years, this firm distributed (via the most convenient mechanism available) copies of a small, highly focused financial advisory newsletter to all of its agents, associates, and franchises. At the end of 25 years, the author of the newsletter decided to sue for infringement. When I heard about the case, my first question to the client’s legal department was, “What’s your plan to settle this case?”
I received two immediate responses: “We’re not interested in settling” and “We have a good defense.” “What,” I asked, “could possibly be a defense that passes the straight face test?” The lawyers’ response was that the individuals involved, “waited too long to file a lawsuit.” “They knew all along what this client was doing with the materials.” My response was, “Even as a non-attorney, my guess is they have you dead to rights. Try to get them paid today. It’s only going to get worse if you wait.” The answer was something along the lines of a trial being inevitable.
The lawyer was prophetic and, of course, the trial was worse and sillier than one can possibly imagine. The jury threw the book at my client. The verdict was never appealed even though there was some bluster at the time that, obviously, such a huge jury award would be appealed.
The lesson for all attorneys is getting clearer by the day: Even though our system is adversarial at its root, as the number of cases getting to trial decreases, more and more forces are pushing for settlement. Increasingly, the answer is to find and hire lawyers who are comfortable being empathetic. Being empathetic is the opposite of being adversarial. Empathy means doing things that matter, where actions speak far louder than words. The concept of empathy is often described as “putting yourself in someone’s shoes.” If that other person is a victim, you’ll be causing yourself and your argument, as well as your attempts to settle, extraordinary damage. Better to step back and look at what the “victim” needs that you can provide, promptly, as a means of settlement and resolution.
Ninety-nine cases out of 100 filed will be settled, arbitrated, negotiated, dropped, or dismissed. Having your day in court is getting to be a pretty rare event.
Oh, and did I mention learning how to apologize? We’ll save that for another blog post.