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Litigation and Love
Ah, there's an oxymoron for you. How can one even think of litigation and love simultaneously? Not an hour goes by without someone in Houston complaining about our litigious society and the evil litigators who promote it. After all, lawyers are the accepted dregs of our society, not to mention the focus of tasteless jokes. Recently one person, and one whom I respect, described attorneys as "vultures living off the carrion of human misfortune." True, perhaps. And perhaps that's why I love being a lawyer. Human misfortune does exist, and as an attorney, I have incredible opportunities to ease it. I find no other profession nearly so rewarding.
Now that sceptics among the readers have their brains churning, a bit of history might not hurt. Not that long ago in our country disputes were resolved without litigation. The accepted method was the duel. Adversaries would simply meet, maintaining a most civil and courteous demeanor, then fight till one died. Dispute resolution was inexpensive, quick and polite. (In light of the rules of civility governing duels, I have trouble understanding why clients routinely expect their attorneys to be uncivil to opposing counsel.)
Not that long ago things were even worse for many women who dared assert themselves. Again the solution was cheaper than litigation and not nearly so drawn out. Women were simply tortured until they confessed to some horrid ambiguous offense, then burned to death. Today the majority of divorce petitions are filed by women. And yes, many divorce proceedings seem like torture; but given historical perspective one can argue we've progressed.
Enough history. Even if we have progressed, there is much yet to be done. How does love play into this? Quite easily. Simple recognition that we are all God's creatures, and all loved by God goes a long way. Love does not require that we let ourselves be abused. Love does require that we avoid inflicting unnecessary pain. The admonition to love one's enemies should certainly apply to litigation.
Sobs alternating with angry outbursts, Roberta sat in the blue chair across the desk from me, playing out a scene repeated all too often. But this is no dramatization of fiction; it's the real thing. After twenty-three years of marriage, Roberta is meeting with a lawyer about divorce. Having been asked why she wants a divorce, she recounts her sufferings - in agonizing detail. She is angry, both at her husband for mentally abusing her all these years, and at herself for tolerating it. Mixed with the anger are hints of guilt, "If I had handled it differently, maybe I wouldn't need to be here." Then more anger, as she blames him for the pain of feeling guilty.
A marriage of twenty-three years is not to be discarded lightly, so I generally ask why a divorce is being sought. I've seen too many marriages saved by therapists or physicians to do otherwise. I do not belittle Roberta's feelings of anger and pain. They are her feelings, they are real, and it is not my place to judge. I might ask if there were ever pleasant times in the relationship. Often some pleasant memories ameliorate the pain, even if the divorce must be. Roberta is interviewing me as I interview her. She wants a mean son of a bitch lawyer, who will make that bastard pay for years of torment. I can and do play that role, but only when needed to achieve a worthy goal and when there is no other choice. She wants him to hurt the way she's been hurting. I try to focus on creating her future. Though it is not my place to judge, it is my right to choose not to play, if the game is infliction of pain solely for purposes of revenge. I can always refer the client to a qualified attorney who employs the Rambo style.
Just because a relationship no longer fosters the growth and happiness of the partners does not mean that the relationship has never been of value for the couple. People change and sometimes relationships must change, too. In no other area of law do I find being nonjudgmental to be of more value, or more difficult to achieve. A life change such as divorce is usually accompanied by fear and pain. However, life change can be accomplished without animosity - and even with love if the participants are willing. One experiencing divorce must remember that the appropriate goal is her/his own well-being, not the infliction of pain on the soon to be ex-spouse. This is true even if the other has inflicted pain. Loving those who have hurt us is a difficult thing to do. But that is what all enlightened masters have told us we must do to fulfill our God given potential. One can seek one's own well-being without intending hurt. Litigation and love can co-exist.
This same principle applies in other areas. Lawsuits often arise between business partners who no longer share the same goals. Again, people change and that may necessitate changing a relationship, but there is no need to inflict unneeded agony on one's partner. Such changes should be experienced without litigation and certainly without progressing to trial. Today most courts require litigants to mediate before granting access to a trial. We have learned that by ordering enemies to talk to each other, most disputes can be resolved.
None of this means that one should not litigate aggressively when circumstances demand it. Sometimes in life, battle is the nobler choice. Love does not mean allowing another to rip us off. It is not love to encourage dishonesty by accepting it. Nor is it love to avoid a needed change, even though change can hurt. However, even if seeking one's own well-being cannot be achieved without cost to the other, that cost can be controlled and the goal sought without rancor. Civility and strength are not mutually exclusive.
Litigation clients seek legal help because in some way they are suffering. So yes, attorneys do make their living off human misfortune. The attorney's task is to move the client towards healing, an honorable profession indeed.
Copyright 1996 Daniel A. Krohn
First published by The Indigo Sun
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