Yet More Things I have Learned From Lawyering

1996HondaOdyssey

I have practiced law for not quite thirty-five years.  Most of my experience has been in litigation – which is the representation of clients in disputes in court.  I have learned a number of lessons over the years, many of which have been quite useful in everyday life.  I have shared some of these bits of experience before (here and here), but there is still some water in this well.

A lawyer does not have to take every case that walks in the door.  An old attorney said it more colorfully when he told me “If ever there is a day that you absolutely need $500 to come in the door – just go play golf.  Because as sure as you don’t, someone will walk in with a case that on any other day you would not touch with someone else’s ten foot pole.  But you will take it because they are waving money at you.  And you will regret it every day until the day you get out of it.”

This rule has proven true in that I have, for various reasons, agreed to take cases while ignoring that little voice was doing its best to get my attention.

This rule applies out in real life as well.  There is nothing that says I have to get into every argument or discussion online.  (I have really worked on getting better at this since 2016).  And there is nothing that says I have to share every thought that pops into my brain.  Maybe it would be better to avoid a political discussion or hold off making a joke or observation.  You know we have all learned this one the hard way.

***

Whenever you read about a legal matter in the news, you can be fairly confident of two things: There is more to the story than you have read, and that the person writing the story did not fully understand the nature of the dispute.

As to the first one, very few legal dispute involve black and white, but rather varying shades of gray.  Any argument where lawyers have been involved for more than a week  has two sides to it, no matter how much each party wants to say there is only one.  For any dispute to get to court, all exceptions have been removed from the above statement.  The same is likely to be true in any intractable argument involving politics or family – there is always another side to the argument, and that other side always has at least some merit.

On the second, have you ever seen news coverage of any issue or event with which you have real familiarity?  I have, and it has amazed me every time how that article or broadcast bit gets so much wrong or leaves so much important stuff out.  I do not blame the reporters for this – it is not their fault that they are required to parachute down into the middle of a story, figure out what’s happening and then get something written and submitted by deadline.  Just understand that this is what happens on the stories with which you are not deeply familiar too.

This is why I have a deeply ingrained habit to ask that question that I ask in legal disputes – “what would the other side say in response if given the chance?”

***

Finally, there are times when it is necessary to go from being pleasant and agreeable to  being a Bulldog.  This is because if you are not willing to be a Bulldog at least occasionally, you are not going to learn some things that you really need to know.  We all want to be liked and to get along with others, and to not cause trouble.  Most of us want to be Beagles and Labradors.  There are, however, times when you have to be prepared to be unliked if you are going to represent a client.

My job is to get at the inconvenient facts the other side would rather I not find.  Many a witness has walked out of a deposition hating my guts because I kept pressing deeper for answers to questions that disclosed weaknesses in that person’s case, which I did every time I got an answer that wasn’t really an answer.  We can almost always evade hard questions by diverting or giving non-answers, but not when when met with a persistent questioner while giving testimony under oath.  Some things make sense and some don’t, and when something doesn’t there are more questions to ask.

This is a tool that should be sparingly used in “civilian” life, though perhaps less sparingly when you have teenage children.  I recall a time when my car needed a water pump.  It was cold out and I didn’t have time to mess with it, so I took my car to the nearby Ford dealer that had done good work for me in the past.  When I got it back I was shocked by the bill – I don’t recall the amount but it was something way out of line for a water pump on Ford V8 in a Crown Victoria.

I called and talked to the service manager the next day.  He assured me that this was the figure from the flat rate book that tells how much time a job should take, and that the labor amount was the bulk of the charge.  That answer did not make sense.  I knew that the part on my car was easily accessible, so I asked for a copy of that page from his book.  He said that this was proprietary information and he could not do that.  Which was another answer that did not make sense.

Part of being an effective Bulldog is knowing when to disengage and find another way.  Because going into an angry rant is just another way of losing control of the situation.  So I went to Plan B and called a different Ford Dealer service manager.  I asked if he could do me the favor of looking at his flat rate book and telling me how much time was listed for that job on my car.  He agreed to do so, and solved the mystery – the high-labor number was for the subcompact Escort, which crammed its water pump among a million  other parts in an impossible-to-access space, a figure in his book that was one line below that for my simple to access Crown Victoria (which required less than half that amount of labor).

When I called back to confront the first service manager, I had my facts straight and knew the exact questions to ask.  After all, no lawyer worth his salt asks a question on cross-examination unless he already knows the answer.  The guy agreed to take another look (at his proprietary information?) – and I got a sizable refund.  Was it an honest mistake or a method the shop used to pad numbers in the weeks before Christmas?  I don’t know.  But I do know that it took some investigation followed by persistent and pointed questions to get an answer that made sense.  It took being a Bulldog.

It’s OK to be a Bulldog, but it’s not OK to be a jerk.  The secret is knowing where the boundary sits and in keeping yourself on the Bulldog side of it.

 

 

 

17 thoughts on “Yet More Things I have Learned From Lawyering

  1. There is indeed a very fine line between being a bulldog and a jerk. There is, at least from personal discovery, a complimentary component to the bulldog one can utilize – the Playing Stupid card.

    It’s amazing what people can tell you when you get them talking. However, that likely works better with interpersonal dealings rather than legal matters.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I learned very early that Bulldog never, ever works with court clerks or some other governmental people. Something along the lines of your Playing Stupid card has been the go-to in those situations, because all the law and learning doesn’t matter if “that’s not the way we do it here.”

      Like

  2. A very thought provoking post. Too many is the time where I’ve OMIF’d! (Open Mouth, Insert Foot)

    Your solution to the repair overcharge is priceless, (Pun intended) 😉

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes, the OMIF problem is more widespread than we might all like. On the repair – yeah, lots of people might have let it go but it was one of those things that just didn’t make sense. I would have understood (but not liked it) if that was really how much the book said to charge. But when something doesn’t make sense my makeup is to keep asking questions until it does.

      Like

  3. That applies to purchasing managers too, we used to have one who was masterful in unleashing the bulldog when required, but only when required. We have one now who absolutely cannot do it, which cripples his effectiveness. I can do it, but I don’t like doing it so it’s very rare.

    The thought I had after reading this is that perhaps we all need to act more like reporters and less like litigators in our daily lives. Parachute into the situation and learn all you can in the limited time available.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I would be satisfied if reporters started acting more like reporters and less like litigators. I don’t have time to be a jury about every single issue in the world today. 🙂

      Like

  4. Your comments apply to many areas of life: “choose your battles wisely.” Some arguments are worth having and some aren’t. It helps to know the difference. So I always put down the toilet seat, and apply the same principle to other issues. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  5. I am glad you went in dogged pursuit of an answer JP. There is always satisfaction when you know you are correct and can substantiate it too. I wonder if the Service Manager, where the car was repaired, took a quick look at his “proprietary information” and realized there was a mistake and did not want to divulge the error, or probably never even bothered to check. Good thing you know a thing or two about car parts – I am at the mercy of the mechanic or shop.

    Liked by 1 person

    • It is a little secret that service advisors at many dealerships have traditionally worked on at least partial commission. I like to think that my case was a simple mistake, but you never know.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Interesting to know that JP. My last car was an ’88 Buick Regal. I had it for 21 years and it had just over 80,000 miles when I got rid of it – it was in perfect shape but was having some electrical issues and I didn’t feel safe in it. I took my 1988 Regal to the dealership for routine oil changes the first ten years I had it. The quick lube/oil places were not that popular then and none were nearby. I dropped it off, caught a bus across the street for downtown to work – easy peasy and thus kept it well maintained. I never complained of brake issues, yet, over the course of a decade, the dealership mechanics said I had rusted brakes due to inactivity and needed service multiple times. Of course they looked at the odometer and could see very little miles on the car. I took the car for a run during the week – it did not sit idle for five days in a row. In the dead of Winter I was advised to run it back and forth in the driveway to avoid rusting the brakes.
        Brakes were not something to trifle with in my opinion, and, though I didn’t drive that much I allowed them to replace the brakes each time. Unbelievably, I replaced the brakes, both rear and front, many times over a ten-year period. Since the car sat in the garage Monday through Friday, as I caught the bus around the corner from my house accounting for low mileage, each time I questioned why this brake job needed to be done. I got “inactivity” as the answer. I did ask and each brake job got me more frustrated.

        The last time I needed rear brakes, the dealership called me at work to get the job approved … a paralegal was in my work area looking in a file and I got off the phone and frustrated with the phone call, I told her how many brake jobs I had had. She said her husband worked for GM in customer relations and to give her all the bills and a recap of work done/timeline, etc. and she would have Mark look at it as it didn’t sound right. He reviewed my paperwork and drafted a letter for me to write to GM to pose the question “was my dealership service department merely unscrupulous or would vehicle inactivity really pose a threat to rusting brakes?” GM responded fairly quickly and said “we are acknowledging your query and someone will contact you in this regard.”

        I am still waiting, HOWEVER, not too long afterward, my former boss, a defense litigation attorney, who drove a Grand Prix, was well aware of my brake issues because he had several sets of brakes replaced as well. He drove his GM Chevy vehicle a lot more than me of course. The Grand Prix and Regal were similar body type/size of vehicle. One day he told me about an article in the WSJ about the GM brake litigation – both of our cars were model years that were involved i.e. brakes performed poorly, rusted out and needed replacement. Many many customer complaints, so many that it warranted a class action suit. We applied and received paperwork and substantiated our claims with repair bills and mailed it in. We both received a settlement and it was not the full price of our repair bills either.

        Liked by 2 people

  6. Such an excellent post JP! So many words of wisdom. I must confess I sometimes could be a Bulldog at work, as hospitals are breeding grounds for Bulldogs, and you have to learn to stand your ground. However, I’m a wimp when it comes to car mechanics. I finally stopped going to the Honda Dealer after being upcharged too many times. I found an honest independent garage nearby, run by a mechanic who used to work for Honda, which has saved me a ton of money, but yours was a useful technique to remember. I always enjoy your lawyer articles…..I’m sure there’s a John Grisham type novel in you some day when you retire.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I think we have to pick our areas for being the bulldog, because it requires you to know what you’re talking about. I would be a terrible bulldog in a landscape nursery, for example. And the idea of a novel is intriguing – thanks for the compliment.

      Liked by 1 person

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s