Vail Daily column: The business of law
Assistant Dean, Mike Navin, was my first-year Real Property Law professor. Dean Navin was a peach and one heck of a good professor. Pearls of wisdom rolled off him as regularly as cloudbursts in a rain forest. Among the nuggets Mike imparted, there is one — 32 years’ post-graduation — that I repeat often (and for reasons you will understand in a moment, loudly) to my clients.
What Mike said was this; “The first time that a client stands up and bangs on your desk saying, ‘It’s the principal of the thing!” it is your duty as a lawyer to stand up taller, bang louder and declare, “Jim or Bill or Mary, let me tell you what the principal will cost you!”
Now, there’s nothing wrong with principal.
So long as you can afford it.
Recently — and far from the first time — I was meeting with a client who said to me, “I’d rather pay you $40,000 than to pay those b**st*ds twenty!”
I thanked him for offering to reimburse my kids’ college educations. And then I invoked Mike Navin’s witticism.
He smiled and said, “Yeah I know. It’s just that … ”
I said, “I get it. I do. But this is a business decision and you have to treat it like one.”
Hold that thought for a second.
‘I want to destroy my wife’
A couple of years ago, my phone rang. Even in this age of texts and emails, while my phone ringing is less common that it once was, the fact of my phone ringing was not unusual.
The caller — a man with a fingernails-on-a-blackboard voice — asked me if I was who I am so I said, “Yup.”
He said, “You do divorce?”
I said I did.
Well before he got to “hello,” he said, “I want to destroy my wife.”
“She wants a divorce.”
I said, “I’m not in the business of revenge. I leave karma to the universe to sort out.”
He repeated that he wanted to destroy her.
I offered that if he wanted representation and he wanted justice done, I might be his guy. But if he was looking to punish his soon-to-be-ex for growing weary of him, the fit might not be a perfect one.
Bent as he was on blood rather than on justice, I suggested that he might want to shop around. Although I can confidently stand my ground in any courtroom, if what he wanted was evisceration, a pit bull with sharp teeth might be his bloody cup o’ tea.
Damper on Emotion
So here’s the point. There is emotion to be sure in legal matters. Why do you think there are metal detectors at the entrance to every courthouse? Sure, some of that may be to prevent someone getting at the “system” but a lot of it — most of it, I’d guess — is to put an official damper on emotion.
When I first started practicing law in San Diego, none of the courts had metal detectors. The first to get them was domestic court. Next was bankruptcy court, then criminal court, and then all of the courts had them. I don’t think the sequence was by happenstance. Accused criminals were more sanguine about their lot than soon-to-be-divorcees, particularly where kids were involved. In other words, emotion was the highest in divorce court, followed by bankruptcy court, criminal court and then the others.
Law is usually about conflict. By the time the parties lawyer up, then the particular conflict has proved unresolvable by cooperative or ordinary means. To coin a phrase, folks are ticked off with one another. And when things turn into a hissy fit, most times, the parties’ blood is a-boil.
Each of us has been there. We simply can’t see straight. And when we can’t see straight, we don’t think straight. Anger and revenge take over. The limbic system overrides the cerebral cortex.
Fairy dust of Passion
Where the lawyer comes in is to seek justice for the client, help calm emotions down and guide the client on a reasonable course. Except in the case of rare injustices — or an unlimited bank account — that rarely means spending more on the lawyer than you might reasonably receive when the dispute is finally settled. There must be proportion between what is sought and what is spent to get it.
All of this is to say that in legal matters, reason should prevail. The emotional issues should be acknowledged and discussed between the lawyer and the client and, if they are overwhelming, a competent therapist should be part of the team. But when legal decisions are to be made, one is wise to remember that, most times, the decisions are business decisions which must be made rationally and calmly. Your lawyer is your advocate but leave it to the gods to be your executioners.
Law is business. Sprinkled with the fairy dust of passion.
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. Robbins may be reached at 970-926-4461 or at either of his e-mail addresses, firstname.lastname@example.org or email@example.com.