When I first meet with clients, I often give them this advice, “Never Litigate Over a Principle.” I know, it probably sounds counterintuitive, because people think that the law is about principles, but that is simply not the function of the law. The law is designed to redress wrongs, but often not in the way that people expect. So, the truth is that many disputes stem from emotions or misplaced expectations of how the situation should be.” It doesn’t matter what type of case it is – every client thinks of litigation as a way to be proved “right.” The problem is that litigation is very different from what people see on TV or in the movies.
Picture it: you are really angry about having been wronged. Your wife left you. Your business partner made some bad decisions with money. Your husband doesn’t pay child support on time. Someone hurt you in a car accident. In every case, people want to show the other side how wrong it was to do those things. The wrong has caused you pain – be it emotional, financial or physical – and you want to win and hear the other side to admit that they were wrong. That rarely happens in a court of law. You want our legal system to show the person that they were wrong as a matter of principle. Those feelings are natural; I have felt them myself. However, several months and thousands of dollars later, you won’t feel so strongly about your principles.
You see, principles are about morals, and our legal system isn’t built to make people more moral. Instead, it is a system of boundaries, where injuries are redressed by money (in most cases). In other words, when somebody hurts you, the only thing that you can ultimately get out of a lawsuit is money. You are probably saying, “that is alright, sign me up!” But wait there’s more – that isn’t all you get. You get to spend money on court filing fees, deposition fees, expert witnesses, copies, and process servers. Depending on the type of case, you get to pay a lawyer a lot of money – on an hourly basis – to spend time thinking about you and your problem. You get to take time from work or your business for depositions, hearings, and meetings. Then, there are mediation costs and time to try to resolve your problem. And for this trouble, you get to have an answer to your problem, maybe two to three years after it happened. That is assuming that there is no appeal. Oh, and we should always remember that you must be able to collect the money that you are awarded, so you should hope that the party that you sue still has some after the lawsuit.
And, for this, you do not get legal fees as part of your damages in many cases. In America, unless you have a legal fees provision in an applicable contract, it is a family law case, or the other side acts so egregiously that they can be sanctioned (which is a higher bar than you expect), you are paying for your own lawyer regardless of the outcome of the case. So, I always tell clients that reimbursement of legal fees is a bonus that you cannot rely on when deciding whether to sue.
Pretty bleak, huh? I paint this bleak picture for my clients, because there is a hard downside to litigation. It is an emotional and financial drain on your life and your business. As such, it should not be entered into lightly and for the wrong reasons, because you want to make the return worth the investment. And, while there are plenty of cases where that is true and plenty of cases where you have no choice, you should decide whether or not to litigate soberly and with all the facts and costs in mind. That is why I say, “Never Litigate Over a Principle.” If you do so, you will never win.