Vail Daily column: When did compromise become a dirty word?
December 31, 2013
I've been at this law stuff for 30 years now.
Here is one thing that I've learned. There is a time and place for the thrust jaw and the puffed chest. Sometimes even a scowl or a growl is called for or a well-placed stomp of the foot. But more times than not, compromise is what it's all about. Didn't someone once say, "A compromise in the pocket is worth two in the bush"? Or something like that any way.
When did compromise get such a bad rap anyway? When did it become a dirty word?
What the word means is this: A way of reaching agreement in which each person or group gives up something that was wanted in order to end an argument or dispute. Despite what you may think, shouldn't ending arguments, rather than perpetuating them, be the goal of law?
In law, as in life, the perfect is often the enemy of the good. Digging your heels in most times results in nothing more than dirty heels. If what you want to do is reach a resolution, then being open to the possibilities is, most times, the better course. Just maybe, if you're willing to reach the other guy part-way, then you might come upon a solution to the conflict that's been ailing you. And then again, maybe not. But as Wayne Gretzky famously observed, "You miss 100 percent of the shots you never take."
Rep. Paul Ryan and Sen. Patty Murray reached a budget compromise in November of last year, the result of which was much teeth-gnashing and hair-pulling in some quarters. Dems and Reps alike swore the proverbial farm had been given away — or else sold down the river. There were dire aphorisms and platitudes aplenty. But, hey, they got a deal done and there were parts of it to like and dislike on all sides. And had they not reached terms, we were tee-ed up for another round of a stalled and plummeting economy. I'll note the Dow Jones average, the Nasdaq and the S&P have climbed steadily since Ryan and Murray shook hands over their caramel latte macchiatos (or in Ryan's case, perhaps some wheatgrass).
Remember the budget impasse in October? Was that better? Wasn't that a bit of the purists on both sides cutting off their noses to spite their faces? Isn't the engine of the economy chugging along like the Little Engine That Can, oh-so-much-better than a standstill? And isn't the chance — at least "the chance" — that Congress might ungird the gridlock that pegged the 113th Congress as the most ineffective in the modern age — worth a little give-and-take?
If you look at the historical antecedents of this nation, it was meant to be a sort of cha-cha; two steps forward, one step back. Who said, "Good government is meant to be messy"? Heck, life itself — meant to be or not — is sometimes messy. The whole structure of government, and the laws it generates, promotes, encourages and presupposes compromise. Else, nawthin' gets done.
OK, I've got some news for you.
Say you are a party to a lawsuit. Say that you've been wronged (you may substitute your own, less P.C. verb here). Say you are absolutely, unquestionably, undeniably, God-as-my-witness in the right. You will — literally — swear an oath that it is so. Well good for you and your convictions. And maybe you are in the right. Maybe the other guy actually is Mussolini, Genghis Khan, Idi Amin Dada and Papa Doc Duvalier all rolled into one. And maybe, just maybe, heaven and earth will align just so. That notwithstanding, however, if you go to trial, then chances are you will not get everything you want. You might get some of it. You might get most of it. But rarely do you clear the bases. And even when you do, strange things happen. Like your opponent goes bankrupt. Like your nemesis disappears into the unknown ether. Like, despite the fact that you have gored his eyes out, he lacks the ability to satisfy the judgment except in unsatisfying dribs and drabs. Like the Splendid Splinter, you hit your grand slam but still owe your lawyer a tidy sum. And, just to wake up and smell the roses here, sometimes you can be absofrickinglutely in the right, and bad things happen to good people; the judge or jury just can't see things from your perspective and you, uh … lose. Yikes.
Any lawyer worth his salt knows that sometimes strange things happen in a courtroom. Cases that should have been won aren't. And the opposite. Although good lawyering and diligent preparation count a bunch, even with good planning there is the occasional Apollo 13. Sometimes unseen gremlins muck up the works.
So if — as attorneys like to say — what goes on in a courtroom is sometimes like a crap shoot, why not increase your odds a mite? If you're going to come out of trial smelling more like the fertilizer than the rose, at least some conscientious thought should be given to "informal resolution."
Informal resolution? Yup; making your own deal. Reaching out the feelers of potential compromise. Finding common ground and ranging out from there.
Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn't. But most times it is worth at least the effort.
During a break in a bloody trial years ago, I was roaming the halls between the courtrooms and the judges' chambers when the judge for our particular trial stopped opposing counsel and me in the hallway. He looked us both over with a, "Sons, I've got something important to say" earnestness about him, and then asked, "Why do these people want me to decide the most important things in their life for them? I'm a stranger. I don't know them. I don't know a darn thing about them; what's important to them and what's not. Wouldn't it have been better if they could have just worked this out on their own?"
Count em' — compromise is not a four-letter word. By my count, it is more like a neat, round, perfect 10.
Rohn K. Robbins is an attorney licensed before the bars of Colorado and California who practices in the Vail Valley with the law firm of Stevens, Littman, Biddision, Tharp and Weinberg LLC. His practice areas include business and commercial transactions, real estate and development, family law, custody, divorce and civil litigation. He may be heard on Wednesdays at 7 p.m. on KZYR radio (97.7 FM) and seen on ECOTV 18 as host of "Community Focus." Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his email addresses, email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org.