Super Lawyers
William C. Altreuter

Saturday, September 24, 2005

I suppose I am something of an expert on bad results: there are all kinds, and I've experienced a lot of them. Don't get me wrong, I win my share, but I've seen plenty of flaming wreaks, too. I think the bad result that I hate the most is the plaintiff's case that gets no-caused when there was enough money on the table. Sometimes there is money up, but it is a a paltry amount, and even in hindsight you are grimly aware that it made more sense for you and your client to let a jury have a whack at it, but that's not what I'm talking about. I am refering here to the situation where the defense has worked its way up to its top dollar, and that top dollar represents legitimate value on the case. When I go to the client and say, "Here is their top dollar. I think we should take it."

This was a woman who had required a lot of hand-holding over the life of the case. I was probably on the phone with her twice a week, for an hour or so, listening to her troubles. I don't care for that aspect of plaintiff's work much, and I don't think I'm even all that good at it, but she found that my ear was adiquately sympathetic, and it is important to invest that kind of time with some clients because they absolutely need to trust you. Over the two years that we represented J., I felt like she'd come to trust me, and I was therefore quite surprised by the answer she gave me when I told her about the offer.

Guided by the same thing that leads people to fly airplanes into buildings she told me that the offer was not enough. "Trust the Lord," she told me, and when I told her that my experience was that the diety seldom involves himself in the outcomes of jury trials, she said that she was sadded to hear that my life was so devoid of faith. "If you are going to pray over this," I recommended, "Pray for guidence, and then listen to what I'm telling you."

You already know the rest of this. You measure sucess in trials like this in subtle ways. After my adversary's summation I turned to my associate, who'd come to court to see the trainwreck. "I got nothin." The jury came back from its break to hear my closing argument looking like a clentched fist, but I gradually worked them around to unfolding their arms, and I finished with three of them nodding their heads. I kept them out for over three hours, but I knew how I'd have voted, and they didn't surprise me. I would have been pleased to have been wrong, but that's really never how it goes. Lawyers are, perhaps first and foremost, sort of soothsayers, hired by clients to predict outcomes. I'd thought that I'd done my job when the offer was made-- I'd worked the case to the place where a legitimate and fair settlement, favorable to my client, was on the table. The second part of my job was to persuade her to take it. In the end I persuaded nobody. I couldn't persuade her, and I couldn't keep the jury from looking at the proof the way they did.

My reward for this was, of course, a fee of zero. Our client, who lives on Social Security Disabilty as a result of something that has nothing to do with our case had had the nerve to tell me that the money that was on the table wasn't enough. This is a danger with people who don't have money: it's never enough for them, because they really have no idea of how money works. She had a very specific mental budget for her castle in the air, and the real dollars that were waiting for her to pick up amounted to about a tenth of the fairy money she wanted. I tried to do her some good, and in the end she wouldn't have it. Like the joke about g-d sending the rowboats, except that I felt like I was the punchline.

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