- “All warfare is based on deception. Hence, when we are able to attack, we must seem unable; when using our forces, we must appear inactive; when we are near, we must make the enemy believe we are far away; when far away, we must make him believe we are near.”
Sun Tzu, The Art of War
Many business people that come to our office for a litigation consultation utter a similar refrain: “how long will a litigation take, how much will it cost and when will this case be settled ?” These are all good questions for which there are, most often, no easy answers.
Typically, prior to the initial consultation, we have not been involved in the underlying dispute and, therefore, cannot reliably predict what stimuli will bring the other side to the settlement table. However, there are several universal truths, that are, or should be, self-evident.
- Very Few Wars End on the First Day
In a perfect world, we would file and serve a complaint, and the other side, either through counsel or on their own, will plead for a settlement conference or make an offer to resolve a pending lawsuit. The problem is that, the receipt of a summons and complaint most often does not inspire the receiving party to become more conciliatory. Usually, the initial reaction is for the other side to “go to the mattresses,” a phrase made famous in the G-dfather, which means to get ready for a long and contentious fight.
So, if the client’s objective is to settle quickly, then it would be reasonable to conclude that, if the other side begins to gear up for a long fight, that is a bad thing.
- Sometimes Wars Need to Be Fought
How many business people come into our office, after having tried unsuccessfully, to settle a dispute, despite multiple efforts, which occur over an extended period of time. The distressed business person walks into the conference room, lays the settlement correspondence out on the conference room table, and justifies what is sometimes an extensive delay in bringing suit by stating:
“Look at how many letter and emails I sent. Look at how many times I spoke to my adversary on the phone. We had lunch. We had dinner. I offered them everything. I got nothing.”
This somewhat sad scenario is a regular occurrence in business. A client who offers everything and who gets nothing. To the battle tested litigator, the problem should be obvious; to the average business person and the neophyte, it is likely not. Here are some suggestions which will help the client, a prospective combatant, move from the “I offered everything approach and got nothing” to a place where maybe he or she will get a lot, maybe everything.
- Learn to Love the War
If you can accept the proposition that there is likely to be a war, you might as well win it. In order to do this, you must reconcile yourself to the fact that you might be involved in a prolonged conflict most often against your wishes. This happens when you have an adversary who simply will not cooperate. As we all know, there are people like this whom we encounter in business and in life. The trick is to learn how to convince them to move their position. The only way to effectively do this is to convince them that they will lose more by fighting than by settling.
When you learn to love the war, and see it as a means to an end, there is a greater likelihood that you will be able to convince your adversary that you will defeat him. Therefore, rather than dreading the many hearings which are part of litigation, or the depositions, a business person would be wise to look forward to, and indeed, embrace those occasions.
Each circumstance, in which you and your lawyer are in the presence of your adversary, provides an opportunity for you to convince your adversary that he will lose more by fighting. This is often accomplished by persuasive and competent advocacy. This objective is also assisted by the demeanor of the client. It is the client who must be able to convince the adversary that he or she has the stamina, the will power and the funds to take the case to trial. If both the client and the lawyer or able to convince the adversary of this fact, whether true or not, it often causes the adversary to look at their checking account balance, assess the likelihood of prevailing, and take stock of their stomach for conflict.
Does your adversary really plan to take the case to trial? It is only by convincing your adversary that you plan to do this that you will ever know.
- Judges and Mediators Don’t Love War
Judges and mediators have a sentimental love for settlement. This is laudable. This sentiment exists because judges and mediators know that the court system can be unfair and, in some instances, a settlement which the parties negotiate on their own is often better than a trial decided by a Judge or a Jury.
Litigators most often welcome a Judge who encourages the parties to talk to one another, after a court hearing, or a mediator who tries valiantly to bridge the gap between the parties at mediation. The problem is that judges, and sometimes mediators, understandably have no idea of the prior efforts which have been made to settle the case and the timing of their request.
- Every Battle Presents an Opportunity
In any lawsuit, the concept of settlement never completely disappears. It can often be seen lurking, silently, beneath the surface. Depositions and court hearings often provide opportunities for the parties to reassess their settlement position.
Court hearings sometimes provide insight into what the Judge may think of the case. Reading the Judge’s mind is often a business that is fraught with peril; nonetheless, a concrete decision by the Court can often provide an excellent forecast for the long term outcome of the dispute.
Depositions are also wonderful tools for inspiring settlement. They can be far more effective than the client’s letter writing campaign or invitations to dinner. A deposition often reveals how a person’s testimony will play at trial. Will the adversary be a good witness or a bad witness ? Is the witness likely telling the truth ? Does either side’s story cohere ? Will it stand up to scrutiny and cross-examination ?
Unless you are willing to wage war, you and your client are likely to never know the answers to these and other questions about the long term prospects for success.
- In Litigation, as in War, Timing is Everything.
The person who wishes to win the war on the first day, and believes that he or she can do so, will surely lose. The reason that “scorched earth” litigators are often successful is because they are able to convince the opposing parties that, before a settlement can be achieved, he or she will burn down the village.
Will they actually burn down the village?
However, the old adage that perception is reality is useful in this context since it is only when your adversary believes that you will pursue the case to conclusion that you will be able to favorably resolve it.