Vail Daily column: A principled rejection of principles
Ryan Summerlin August 29, 2014
The mere mention of his name causes anger and frustration to flood the brain. Rationality is trying its best to break the surface, but is summarily drowned by the tidal wave of emotion. The mouth, usually a fount of reason, expels ridiculous statements like, “I’d rather pay my lawyer a million dollars than settle this matter with him for four thousand,” or “I know that I am spending my retirement money, but I don’t care about the cost, all I care about are my principles.” Variations on this theme haunt my working life. Principles have become code for all manner of irrational behavior and it has me very concerned.
To be explicit: I am not advocating an abandonment of moral codes. Principles are a critical guide along the path of one’s life. Without principles, one descends into sociopathic ways or worse. Conducting litigation without principles, often done but not recommended, is a great way to jeopardize one’s law license and to alienate judges, juries and fellow lawyers. The trouble about which I herein rhapsodize begins when principles escape the confines of self and are imposed upon others. In the way that religious zealotry has been the catalyst for much of the world’s strife, an attempt to foist principles on your opponent will exacerbate a legal conflict from minor to unmanageable. To avoid a conflagration, keep your principles to yourself.
To Each Their Own?
One problem with using principles as a basis for starting or maintaining a lawsuit is that the dispute itself distorts one’s sense of morality. There would be no conflict if each party did not view themselves as right and the other as wrong. One who firmly believes themselves to be morally superior is unable to objectively reflect upon their own behavior. As I am very fond of repeating, no conflict is truly black and white, each side has some culpability in the gray of the matter. Thus, to ride atop a high horse and look down upon your opponent as an unprincipled lout does not track reality.
This sort of behavior is witnessed frequently in toddlers. My daughter, who has just purloined a toy from another child, becomes indignant when that same child borrows one of her toys. “But Daddy, that is mine!” she wails. She is applying her still-developing principles in an awkward and inappropriate fashion, but I am not too concerned as she is still only 2 1/2 years old. Adults have no such excuse.
Litigants frequently cite their principles as the basis for decision, when in fact their choices come from a place of emotion or ego. It is convenient for them to use principles as a proxy because it is assumed that this subterfuge is unassailable. They believe that nobody could possibly question their principles, those being both highly personal and sacred. However, when principles are being used as cover for something more insidious, I have no compunction about sharing my less than charitable views about the situation. While this can sometimes be tough, I always approach the situation in a friendly, but direct way.
My job as an attorney is to look out for the best interests of my clients and often that means being objective with them in a way that can be uncomfortable or undesirable. Although thoughtful and outgoing, my job is not to be a cheerleader, but rather a counselor. In the end, I would prefer that my clients hear the harsh reality from me at a time when more constructive ends can be achieved rather than having the judge or jury hand down the inescapable truth.
It is very human to get worked up when someone violates our personal sense of propriety. I am certainly not immune to this malady, but my work has taught me that it is rarely worth proceeding further than the initial stage of annoyance. Civil lawsuits are all-encompassing endeavors and to voluntarily engage in litigation should be a coldly rational decision with the view solely on the economics of the situation. In the end, the court is not going to elevate the principles of one party over the other in rendering a verdict. The result will be largely or completely financial in nature: Party A owes Party B $10,000 or something of that nature. Moral judgments are outside the realm of the legal system and reserved for the deity of your choice. Unfortunately, I think that the docket of the Flying Spaghetti Monster (look it up on Wikipedia) is full.
T.J. Voboril is a partner at Reynolds, Kalamaya & Voboril LLC, a local law firm, and the owner and mediator at Voice Of Reason Dispute Resolution. For more information, contact Voboril at 970-306-6456, email@example.com or visit www.rkvlaw.com.