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.