Lawyers can seem like they’re from a foreign land with their own strange customs and language. And, let’s face it, sometimes (okay, a lot of times) some lawyers seem unapproachable, which can make the client experience less than a good one.
At Hightower Reff, we do our best to be approachable, talk like real people and have a productive relationship with our clients. However, like many lawyers, despite our best efforts to do this, we sometimes fall short of our clients’ expectations.
In this series, What to Expect from Your Lawyer, Hightower Reff Partner Attorney Susan Reff will give you some useful information to help you understand why your lawyer handles things the way they do and to maintain reasonable expectations regarding your attorney.
This week: five of the most important reasons to pick your battles when you are involved in a court case.
Focusing Expectations & Picking Battles
Picking battles is important to help you focus your expectations and develop your strategy for your case. Each court case is made up issues to be decided. In criminal cases those issues, in large part, involve proof as to whether or not the defendant did what he or she is accused of doing. In civil cases – like divorce and child custody – the issues involve who is entitled to what property, and who should have what time and decision making power with the children.
Sometimes an entire case can rise or fall on one issue, especially in criminal law, and your biggest (and perhaps only) battle choice may be whether or not to enter a plea agreement. Sometimes, however, you have more choices to make regarding your battles and focusing your expectations. This is especially true in family law.
When your lawyer advises you to back off on an issue, there is a reason. Here are five of the key reasons to listen to that advice, focus your expectations and pick your battles:
1. You Don’t Want to Spend the Rest of your Life (or what feels like it) in Court
Even when the two sides aren’t fighting over every little thing, court cases take a long time. Every issue you choose to fight about adds weeks or months onto the clock.
First, the lawyers will go back and forth trying to reach an agreement, then, they may have to file motions or other papers with the court about that specific issue asking the judge to decide. Depending on the issue, there may be a special hearing, or it may be dealt with at trial. Either way, chances are it will add time onto your case.
In some cases, like criminal cases where your freedom is on the line, and your attorney believes the law is on your side, it may be worth all the time in the world to fight nearly every issue. However, in other cases – including divorce and child custody – you should weigh the time it will take to fight over the issue against the likely outcome and ask yourself if the battle is worth it.
An experienced attorney can advise you regarding your chances of success if you fight a certain issue in your case, and how much time it is likely to take. With that information, you are better equipped to decide if your time investment is worth the likely return.
2. Other Things are More Important
Before you decide to fight a battle over an issue in your case, decide your intentions and priorities and make sure winning that issue is in line with them. In other words, focus on what’s important to you.
If you choose to prioritize one issue in your case, and you are successful, it may be at the expense of something else. This is especially true in family law. The court is going to try to make things “equitable,” so issues left up to the court are likely to go a little your way, and a little not your way.
For example, when it comes to a divorce property settlement, it may mean that you get the boat, but you don’t get the savings account with a value comparable to the boat. Maybe that’s fine with you because you really like boating. But, if you go after the boat just to keep your spouse from having it, and you really need the money instead, you could end up cutting off your nose to spite your face.
In child custody issues, relationships are usually the most important consideration. First, you should consider how any issue at hand may affect your child’s relationship with the other parent and/or with you. Next, consider how the issue will affect your relationship with the other parent and – as a result – your ability to effectively co-parent your child. If the impact of fighting about an issue on any of these areas will be worse than if you reach a compromise, don’t fight. Work it out. Even if it means giving a little more than you really want. In the end, the return on your investment of sacrifice is likely to pay off.
3. There are Long Term Consequences
Decisions you make in your case – especially in family law – could affect you, your spouse, and children for many years.
As an example, in a divorce, you may really want your ex’s mother’s casserole dish. Maybe you really love it, because you loved your mother-in-law & she has passed, so you just want this one reminder of her… or maybe you know your spouse really wants it, so you want to take it to spite them. Either way, decide whether the casserole dish is worth it in the scheme of life.
In twenty years, is it going to have been worth your time fighting over a piece of bakeware? Probably not. Perhaps the long term consequences will result in damage to your integrity and your ability to remain amicable with you spouse. Those things could render the battle a lost cause – regardless of how it turns out.
The consideration of long term consequences is especially important when children are involved in a divorce.
4. Your Money Tree Died
You may have heard the saying that all problems have a solution so long as you have the time and money to find it and make it happen. In other words, time and money are fuel to reach a goal. The same can be said in many court cases.
Along with costing time, court cases cost money. In most of them, your lawyer charges by the hour. That means every additional battle adds to the bill. Unless your money fuel tank is unlimited, you are going to have to decide where you want to focus your money fuel. If you spend it all fighting over things like casserole dishes, you will soon find you don’t have any left for the issues in your case that are truly impactful in your life and your child’s. Put your money fuel where it counts.
5. Your Case is About the Law – Not Principals
Very rarely (perhaps almost never) is a court case about principals. Rather, court cases are about the law. When people involved in a court case talk about principals, they are talking about what they feel or believe is “fair” or what they deserve. They are talking about emotions. However, what you feel or believe you deserve isn’t relevant in court. The law is only thing that is relevant.
If your lawyer is being honest, they will tell you the same. It’s your lawyer’s job to guide your expectations accordingly. That means focusing on the law, not your emotions.
For example, if you enter your divorce with the goal of taking your spouse to the cleaners because he or she was unfaithful or was a poor excuse for a spouse – “out of the principal of the matter” – you are going to end up disappointed.
The court does not care whether your ex is an ass. The court can only concern itself with enforcing the law. In most aspects of divorce, and even child custody, being an ass does not mean you are entitled to less money, property, or time with your child. Further, your spouse getting less of any of these things is not going to change a thing about your spouse or what happened between you.
Don’t Make Your Battle Plan Alone
There is no substitute for the advice of an experienced attorney to help you pick your battles. Hightower Reff can help. Call us at 402-932-9550, or contact us online.
Watch for Part III of our series when we explore ways you can help control your legal fees.
This article should not be construed as legal advice. Situations are different and it’s impossible to provide legal advice for every situation without knowing the individual facts.