Totally Apolitical Lessons for Lawyers from the Mueller Report

Totally Apolitical Lessons for Lawyers from the Mueller Report

If you’re a lawyer, or if you’ve ever had a lawyer, you’ve probably had a conversation something like this.

It was a conference call I had with a Texas client—let’s call him Fred—who had been dragged into a big lawsuit in another state. We had our local counsel on the line—let’s call him Frank. Frank was an accomplished litigator from the place where the client had been sued.

Frank had a way with words. He meticulously yet simply outlined the legal issues facing our client. He skillfully walked through the pros and cons of the strategy decisions we faced. In short, he laid out all the factors beautifully. I was impressed.

Our client, Fred, was a self-made businessman who had done quite well for himself. He was smart, but plain spoken. Fred’s reaction to Frank’s brilliant presentation of the issues? “Ok, so what should I do?”

That, in a nutshell, is the problem with the Mueller report.

The Mueller Report

Obviously, people have different political views of the Mueller report and the investigation that produced it. Let’s set that aside for a moment.

I’ll start with some easy things we can all agree on. The report has two volumes. I don’t think that’s controversial.

Volume I is about whether Trump and his campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russians to interfere in the 2016 presidential election.

Now we’re slightly drifting into the controversy lane, because some people would say Volume I is about “collusion.” But Volume I is careful to point out that it did not analyze “collusion,” which is not a legal term. See Vol I, p. 2 (“we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion’”).

Volume I stated a conclusion. The conclusion was: “the investigation did not establish that members of the Trump Campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its election interference activities.” (Vol I, p. 2) While some people might dispute this conclusion, I don’t think anyone disputes that this was the conclusion.

Volume II was about obstruction of justice. I think everyone agrees on that, although some people might think obstruction of justice should not have been investigated.

In contrast to Volume I, Volume II did not state a conclusion.

Now we’re getting controversial (sort of). Because Trump and his team have claimed that the Mueller report cleared Trump on obstruction of justice. “No collusion, no obstruction.” “Total exoneration.” “Case closed.”

But that claim is simply false. Any intelligent and honest person who has read Volume II would have to concede that.

And this shows us the impossibility of a completely “apolitical” or “neutral” discussion of the Mueller report. Even the simplest objective observation about the report directly contradicts things the President has said about it.

I’m not saying this to bash Trump. It’s just a fact.

But I promised no politics. So let’s get back to the things we can all agree on. Like why didn’t Volume II state a conclusion on obstruction of justice?

Oh crap. Controversy again. Trump’s team would say Volume II didn’t state a conclusion on obstruction of justice because there was insufficient evidence that he obstructed justice.

But again, that would be demonstrably not true. The report says the opposite: “[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, we are unable to reach that judgment.” (Vol. II, p. 182)

So why no conclusion on obstruction? The report identifies two related reasons: (1) the OLC memo and (2) the difficulty of the question.

A Strange Asymmetry

The Office of Legal Counsel memo is an internal Justice Department policy that says you cannot indict a sitting President (there is an original 1973 memo and a 2000 update). This is a hotly contested issue of constitutional law. But the Mueller team decided they were bound to follow this policy.

And then they went a step further. The Mueller team decided that, because they could not charge the President with obstruction of justice, they could not state a conclusion that the President obstructed justice, even if that’s what the evidence established. The Conclusion of Volume II stated: “Because we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment, we did not draw ultimate conclusions about the President’s conduct.”

I think this was the most important decision the Special Counsel made, and I think it was the wrong decision.

It produced a strange asymmetry: if the evidence established that the President did not obstruct justice, the report would say so; but if the evidence established that the President did obstruct justice, the report would not say so.

And all of this because of that pesky OLC memo, right?

If only it were that simple. The Conclusion to Volume II adds this: “The evidence we obtained about the President’s actions and intent presents difficult issues that would need to be resolved if we were making a traditional prosecutorial judgment.”

Those “difficult issues” are largely questions of the President’s intent, where the report takes pains to lay out the evidence both for and against corrupt intent.

The statement about difficult issues muddies the water. Putting it all together, here’s what I think Volume II is saying:

  1. The evidence does not clearly establish that Trump did not obstruct justice. If it did, we would say so.
  2. There is evidence that Trump obstructed justice, but the evidence presents some difficult issues.
  3. We are not allowed to state a conclusion that Trump obstructed justice.
  4. Because we are not allowed to state a conclusion that Trump obstructed justice, we are not going to bother with trying to resolve the “difficult issues” presented by the evidence of obstruction of justice.

The result is a report that has the same problem as Frank’s advice, recounted earlier. It leaves the public and Congress in the same position as Fred. They are left asking “ok, so what should we do?”

arches-architectural-design-architecture-135018
This ceiling is symmetrical. Mueller’s methodology was not.

What should we do? The Mueller report doesn’t tell us. It is much like a legal memo from a lawyer to a private client laying out the arguments and evidence on both sides of an issue, but not giving the client a recommendation on what to do.

But is that wrong? Was it the Special Counsel’s job to tell Congress what it should do? Is it the lawyer’s job to recommend to the client what decision to make?

In my opinion, the answer to these questions is a qualified yes.

Answer the Question

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that the Mueller team’s decision not to state a conclusion on obstruction of justice was unreasonable. There is at least a reasonable argument that if you can’t indict the President for obstruction of justice, then you shouldn’t accuse the President of obstruction of justice. The report explains this.

And I’m not saying the Special Counsel acted in bad faith. I don’t think the Mueller team avoided answering the difficult issues because of laziness, fear of being criticized, or some other inappropriate reason.

But I do think the Special Counsel came up short. The report should have stated a conclusion, yes or no, on whether the evidence established that Trump obstructed justice.

If the answer was no, that would likely be the end of it. Sure, some Democrats would have tried to keep the issue alive, but as a practical matter the obstruction of justice charge would be dead.

If the answer was yes, the report could have stated the conclusion that the President obstructed justice. Then it could have simply added that the President could not be indicted because of the OLC memo. At that point the ball would be squarely in Congress’s court.

Either way, it would be an improvement over the current situation. As it stands, we are left to wonder what the Mueller team would have said. I expect some member of Congress will ask Mueller this question when he testifies this week, and that he will avoid giving a direct answer.

But is there any group of people anywhere in the world more qualified to answer the question than Mueller’s team? Whatever you may think of their political allegiances or motivations, these are some of the top lawyers in the country. They have spent hundreds of hours of their professional lives investigating the facts and analyzing the law.

That doesn’t mean we would all have to agree with their conclusion (and you can guarantee that, either way, a large percentage of voters would not). But wouldn’t it be nice to know what they think?

The Lawyer’s Assignment

The same is true when us “ordinary” lawyers give advice to clients. No one is in a better position to recommend to the client what to do than us.

There are, of course, exceptions. The most obvious reason not to give the client a recommendation is if the client doesn’t want one. If a client says “analyze the issues and give me all the pros and cons, but don’t tell me what you think I should do,” then sure, follow those instructions.

But that’s not the way it usually goes down.

Usually the client does not identify the scope of the assignment so precisely. Clients come to lawyers with problems. They rely on lawyers not only to answer their questions, but to make sure the questions they ask are the right ones. The scope of the assignment is usually somewhat open-ended.

Lawyers can be reluctant to give recommendations. There are several reasons for this. An obvious one, especially for the cynical, is that lawyers don’t want to get sued for malpractice. If lawyers don’t give explicit recommendations, one might think, they can’t get sued for giving the wrong recommendation.

That is surely a factor, but I think it’s a minor factor. There are more fundamental reasons lawyers like to leave it to the client to decide what to do.

First, there is the simple human fear of getting criticized for making the wrong recommendation. Legal malpractice suits are very rare, and judgment calls do not make for good malpractice claims. But being blamed for recommending a decision that does not turn out well is all too common. Hindsight is 20/20, and no one likes getting thrown under the bus.

Second, there is the simple fact that sometimes the client doesn’t really want the lawyer’s recommendation. What some people actually want are legal reasons to support the decisions they have already made in their minds. In these situations, lawyers who are good at keeping clients don’t want to recommend what to do until they figure out what the client already wants to do. You don’t want to take the risk that you recommend the opposite.

In both cases, the lawyer’s impulse to avoid giving a sincere recommendation on what to do is understandable, but not commendable.

Just as the Mueller team was in a unique position to give an opinion on the obstruction question, a lawyer is a unique position to give a client guidance on the best thing to do. Who is better qualified to give a recommendation?

Of course, there are often things the lawyer does not know. It can be hard to gauge the client’s risk tolerance. There can be unidentified factors, especially personal factors, that bear on the decision, e.g. the lawyer may not appreciate that taking that settlement offer is better than the emotional toll of two years of litigation. And it is even possible—gasp!—that there are undisclosed facts the client knows but the lawyer doesn’t.

But factors like this underscore the importance of understanding the client. You have to get to know Fred before you tell him what to do.

__________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

Ethics Tips for Law Bloggers

Ethics Tips for Law Bloggers

I know what you’re thinking. “A blog post about blogs? Wow, Five Minute Law has really jumped the shark.”

But if you’re a lawyer who blogs, a lawyer thinking about blogging, or just someone who reads lawyer blogs, I think you’ll find these ethics tips worthwhile. And so “meta.”

If you also want practical tips on lawyer blogging, check out my UT Law CLE webcast with legal marketing expert Stacey E. Burke, Lawyer Blogging: Ethical Issues and Practical Tips.

These tips focus on Texas ethics rules, because that’s where I practice, but other states have similar ethics rules, so read on, non-Texas lawyers.

Ethics Tip #1: Don’t imply an attorney-client relationship

There are two things you don’t want your blog post to do: form an attorney-client relationship or provide legal advice.

Forming an attorney-client relationship requires that the client communicate an intent that the lawyer provide legal services and that the lawyer consent to do so. The grey area is that the lawyer’s consent can be express or implied. Implied consent happens when the lawyer knows or reasonably should know that the client is reasonably relying on the lawyer to provide the services.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.16.36 AM.png

It is unlikely that a person would form an attorney-client relationship by reading a lawyer’s blog post. No one reading a blog post would reasonably think “that lawyer just agreed to provide me with legal services.”

But sometimes people are unreasonable. So be careful not to write anything that implies you are agreeing to provide the reader with legal services. And if you want to be extra cautious, include a disclaimer. On my YouTube channel, for example, I say “Zach Wolfe is not your lawyer (unless you have signed an engagement agreement with his firm).”

The danger of an inadvertent attorney-client relationship is greater in the comments section. Imagine a reader comments, “thanks for the helpful post about non-competes” and then asks if you think his non-compete is enforceable. (Something like this has happened to me.) Don’t ignore the comment, but make sure your response does not imply that you have agreed to be that guy’s lawyer.

The second thing to avoid is related, but thornier: legal advice. It’s related because if the person reading your blog post is not your client, then generally you can’t be held responsible for giving that person bad legal advice. It’s thornier because the whole point of many blog posts is to give guidance based on your expertise. Of course it’s legal advice, in a sense.

So there is no perfect solution to this problem, but it is a good practice to include a disclaimer. The best disclaimer I’ve seen was on a Twitter profile: “Expressly incorporates all disclaimers of all Twitter lawyers everywhere.”

But seriously, a disclaimer can clarify that your expert analysis is not legal advice for anyone’s specific situation. Again, that should be obvious, but it doesn’t hurt to say it.

Ethics Tip #2: Be aware of potential issue conflicts 

You know you have arrived as a law blogger when opposing counsel cites a statement from your blog post against you in the courtroom. That is the greatest compliment.

But this points out a risk that makes lawyers nervous about expressing opinions on legal issues: issue conflicts. There is always the risk that an opinion in your blog post could conflict with the position of your client in a present or future case. The situation is analogous to “issue conflicts” that can arise when a lawyer advocates for conflicting positions in different litigations.

Considering this danger of issue conflicts, law bloggers have essentially three choices:

  1. Never express an opinion on a legal issue; it could be cited against you.
  2. Say whatever you want; it’s just your personal opinion.
  3. Express educated opinions about legal issues in your practice area, but be careful how you do it.

Choice 1 strikes me as overly cautious. If you’re that risk averse, then blogging probably isn’t for you in the first place. And if you are blogging, one of the best ways to develop a reputation as a “thought leader” in your practice area is to express opinions. You’re a blogger, not a reporter.

But Choice 2 goes too far the other way. I respect the attitude of saying whatever the heck you think, but if you want to get and keep clients, you should at least consider how your opinions could impact clients and potential clients.

The prudential considerations are obvious. Your client probably won’t be happy if you express an opinion directly adverse to the client’s position in a pending lawsuit. In some cases, the issue conflict might even present an ethical issue.

The rules on issue conflicts are fuzzy. Here is comment 24 to Model Rule 1.7 on conflicts of interest:

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.10.41 AM.png

Applying this to law blogs, we essentially get the following rule: a lawyer taking an inconsistent position in a blog post is generally not a conflict of interest, except in the rare case where it would materially limit the lawyer’s effectiveness in representing the client.

So it depends. Let’s take three different opinions as examples:

  1. Texas should only allow non-competes in the sale of a business.
  2. Under Texas law, the employer has the burden to prove that a non-compete is reasonable.
  3. The Texas Citizens Participation Act (TCPA) applies to a claim that an employee misappropriated trade secrets.

These are different types of opinions. No. 1 is a personal opinion about what the law should be. No. 2 is a plain-vanilla statement about what the law is. No. 3 is somewhere in between.

I doubt that expressing a personal opinion about what the law should be would ever violate an ethical duty to a client, especially when the First Amendment is factored in. If you’re prosecuting a drug offense and the defense attorney cites your public statement that marijuana should be legalized, the response is easy: that was just my personal opinion. It’s a free country.

But exercising your freedom of speech could present a practical problem. If your practice is defending medical malpractice claims, your clients probably won’t be too excited if you publish a blog post opining that caps on pain and suffering damages in med mal cases should be abolished.

The second kind of statement—simply stating what the law is on a basic issue—is also unlikely to create an ethical issue. That is, unless you take a contrary position in court. Let’s say I write a blog post saying the statute of limitations for a certain claim is four years, and then in court I say it’s two years. That kind of stark conflict is going to hurt my credibility.

The solution to this problem is fairly simple: be accurate in your statements about what the law is, and don’t take unfounded positions in court.

Opinion 3 is a harder case. When you express an opinion about an unsettled question that is troubling the courts, you could say it’s just your personal opinion. And judges should understand the difference between your personal opinion on a difficult legal issue and your role as an advocate for your client.

But the reality is that many judges are more formalistic in their thinking. If the judge thinks there is only one “right” answer to the legal issue, your conflicting statements about that issue could weaken your position in the eyes of the court. One could argue that “materially limits” your effectiveness in the lawsuit.

Assuming your opinion could hurt your client—even if it shouldn’t—do you violate an ethical duty to your client if you express an opinion on an unsettled legal issue that goes against your client’s position? Generally, I say no.

But that’s just my opinion, man.

Ethics Tip #3: Don’t say you “specialize”

After that difficult issue, let’s go to a simple rule.

Texas Rule of Professional Conduct 7.04 generally prohibits lawyers from saying they “specialize” in a certain area of law. There are exceptions, most notably if you are certified by the Texas Board of Legal Specialization. Unless you fit one of the exceptions, you should not say that you “specialize” or that you are a “specialist.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.18.37 AM.png

Texas lawyers break this rule more often than you might think. If I see a Texas lawyer say in a blog post that he “specializes” in some area of law that I know the Texas Board of Legal Specialization doesn’t recognize as a specialty, I’m going to raise an eyebrow.

The solution to this problem is also simple. Just don’t use the word “specialize.” Say that your practice “focuses” on a certain area of law, and you should be fine.

Does this put form over substance? Sure, but the Texas State Bar seems to be comfortable drawing the line here.

Ethics Tip #4: Remember that a client’s “confidential information” includes non-confidential information

This may be the most counter-intuitive tip.

Suppose you represent a client in a bitter business dispute that goes all the way through trial and appeal. There’s a transcript of the trial testimony on file with the trial court, plus an appellate court opinion detailing the sordid facts of the case. So you’re free to write about the facts in a blog post without client permission, right? I mean, it’s “public record.”

Not so fast. Look at Texas Rule of Professional Conduct 1.05(a). “Confidential information” includes both “privileged information” and “unprivileged client information.”

Privileged information is easy to understand. But the definition of “unprivileged client information” is surprising: “all information relating to a client or furnished by the client, other than privileged information, acquired by the lawyer during the course of or by reason of the representation of the client.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.21.21 AM.png

Read that again. Confidential information includes all unprivileged information:

  • relating to a client or furnished by the client and
  • acquired “during the course of” or “by reason of” representation of the client.

This is an extraordinarily broad definition. It doesn’t matter whether the information is publicly available. If the information “relates” to the client and you obtained it during the course of the representation, it’s confidential.

That means, generally, you can’t publish such information in a blog post. Rule 1.05(b) says a lawyer may not “reveal” confidential information or “use” confidential information to the client’s disadvantage.

There are, of course, exceptions, e.g., when “the client consents after consultation.” See Rule 1.05(b) and (c). But the bottom line is that in most cases if you want to say anything about a client’s case in a blog post, you’re going to have to get the client’s informed consent.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.22.03 AM.png

Can this be right? The press is free to write an article discussing all the facts of a case that are available in the public record. But if I represented one of the parties to the case, you’re telling me I can’t blog about the facts, even when I’m portraying my client in a positive light.

Here’s a possible solution: You could make a case that you’re not violating client confidentiality by focusing on the rule’s use of the word “reveal.” Implicit in the word reveal is the idea that you are communicating something not already known.

That’s the textualist case for allowing lawyers to blog about the facts of their cases. And there’s a non-textualist argument as well: surely, despite the literal language of the rule, a common-sense interpretation would allow a lawyer to write a blog post that discusses facts that have already become public, provided the discussion doesn’t disadvantage the client.

Maybe, but don’t expect help from the American Bar Association. ABA Formal Opinion 480 on lawyer blogging says the rule means what it says: lawyers cannot blog about “unprivileged confidential information” without permission, even if the information is not really confidential.

Unless an exception applies, the ABA says “a lawyer is prohibited from commenting publicly about any information related to a representation.” And it doesn’t matter if the information is in the public record: “information about a client’s representation contained in a court’s order, for example, although contained in a public document or record, is not exempt from the lawyer’s duty of confidentiality.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.00.14 AM.png

There’s one obvious solution: just get client consent. But it can be awkward to contact a client or former client every time you want to include a little war story in your next blog post.

There’s an easier way to avoid disclosing “unprivileged confidential information.” Just don’t name names. When you describe the facts of a case you’ve handled, don’t name the parties. Just describe the situation generically, or as a hypothetical.

This will sometimes solve the problem, but be careful. As the ABA opinion points out, if your description is specific enough that the reader can figure out who you’re talking about, you may still be violating the confidentiality rule. “A violation is not avoided by describing public commentary as a ‘hypothetical,’” the opinion says, “if there is a reasonable likelihood that a third party may ascertain the identity or situation of the client from the facts set forth in the hypothetical.”

And hypotheticals can sound like real cases, especially when you handle the same type of case over and over. When I describe a hypothetical departing employee lawsuit, I sometimes wonder if a former client might think I’m talking about him, only because the fact patterns tend to be so similar.

Here again, a disclaimer may be helpful. On my LinkedIn profile, for example, I say: “Hypotheticals are based on my general experience and reading, not particular actual cases.”

Ethics Tip #5: File your blog post if it contains “advertising”

Texas lawyers must file any advertisement in the public media with the Advertising Review Committee of the State Bar. See Rule 7.07(a). So lawyer bloggers have two options: put as much advertising as you want in your blog post and file it, or avoid saying anything in your blog post that will turn it into advertising.

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.00.42 AM.png

Simultaneous filing with the State Bar is a pain (and there is a fee), so most lawyers will opt for the latter. But when is a blog post considered advertising?

The Texas ethics rules don’t expressly define “advertisement” or “advertising.” But the State Bar has provided guidance in Interpretive Comment 17: “Blogs or status updates considered to be educational or informational in nature are not required to be filed.”

So if you’re trying to avoid making your blog post an advertisement, “educational or informational” is your mantra. To avoid an ethical issue, you should aim to educate and inform your audience, not to brag about yourself. And this usually makes for a better post anyway.

But even when you’re trying to educate and inform, it’s easy to stray into content that could be considered advertising.

Here are three things likely to turn a lawyer’s “educational or informational” blog post into advertising:

  1. Promoting good results obtained for a client
  2. Touting the lawyer’s experience or qualifications
  3. The “call to action”

Trouble is, these are natural things to do in a blog post. A good result you recently obtained for a client is a classic blog post topic. Talking about your experience and qualifications is also natural. And many marketing experts say your content should conclude with a “call to action,” e.g. “if you’re facing a difficult divorce, call me now at the number below.”

The first two things that can make your blog post an advertisement are matters of degree. If you write about a result obtained for a client, do it in a way that is educational, without expressly using it to promote yourself. Similarly, you can convey information about your experience and qualifications in a subtle way. In both cases, the key concept is “show, don’t tell.” Show the readers that you understand a particular area of law.

The call to action is different. In my opinion, any post that includes a call to action is crossing the border into Advertising-Land. So you’ve got two choices. Either don’t include the call to action, or include it and just deal with the hassle of filing your blog post with the State Bar.

There’s one more thing that is likely to make your blog post an advertisement: comparing yourself to other lawyers. That brings me to the next tip.

Ethics Tip #6: Don’t compare yourself to other lawyers

This is another fairly simple one. Rule 7.02(a)(4) of the Texas Disciplinary Rules provides that a lawyer may not compare the lawyer’s services with other lawyers’ services, “unless the comparison can be substantiated by reference to verifiable, objective data.”

Screen Shot 2019-06-09 at 10.01.29 AM.png

It’s a rare comparison that can be backed up with verifiable, objective data. So, if you can document that “I’ve tried more mesothelioma cases to verdict in Jefferson County than any other practicing lawyer,” then have at it. If you know for a fact that “I’m one of only nine Texas lawyers board certified in both Real Estate Law and Civil Trial Law,” then I suppose you can say that.

But just about any opinion comparing yourself to another lawyer is going to be off limits. By definition, if it’s an opinion it probably cannot be proven with “verifiable, objective data.”

Comment 5 to Rule 7.02 gives some examples of unsubstantiated opinions: “we are the toughest lawyers in town,” “we will get money for you when other lawyers can’t,” or “we are the best law firm in Texas if you want a large recovery.”

Never mind if you see lawyers making statements like this all the time. Don’t do it in your blog post. In addition to violating Rule 7.02, it also risks turning your blog post into an advertisement, as discussed above.

Plus, who wants to read a blog post where a lawyer just boasts and compares himself to other lawyers? That’s almost as bad as a blog post about blogging.

__________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who focuses—he didn’t say “specialize”—on non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. He expressly incorporates herein all disclaimers of all law blogs everywhere.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

The Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy

The Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy

Donald Trump made news when he suggested it might be time to pull American troops out of Afghanistan. U.S. military forces have been there about 18 years. That’s an easy number for me to remember because my daughter is 18 years old. She was born in 2001. Then 9-11 happened, and I’m kind of glad she wasn’t old enough to remember it.

Going into Afghanistan seemed like a no-brainer at the time. The Taliban controlled Afghanistan and were harboring Al-Qaeda. It seemed the only people who opposed President George W. Bush’s decision to send U.S. troops into Afghanistan were the kind you can count on to oppose virtually any U.S. military action (far left with a sprinkle of libertarian types). In the wake of the worst attack on American soil in my lifetime, W’s approval rating was high even among Democrats.

Of course, that didn’t last. Opinions on the Iraq war were more divided, and today it seems there is a broad consensus that Iraq was a mistake. Not only that, people are even questioning whether it makes sense to stay in Afghanistan. Eighteen years later the Al-Qaeda threat looks significantly diminished, yet Afghanistan seems like an endless quagmire.

More traditional hawks tend to reject this Afghanistan revisionism. If we leave Afghanistan now, aren’t we admitting that going in to get Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda was a mistake? After all the dollars spent and American lives lost, how can we just give up?

This, of course, is the Sunk Cost Fallacy. It’s primarily a principle of economics, but it applies in a wide range of scenarios. The idea is that in deciding whether to spend additional money or resources on a project that is in progress, a rational actor should consider whether the future benefits are likely to outweigh the future costs. It is a fallacy to consider costs incurred in the past—the “sunk” costs—because there is nothing you can do to change them.

In other words, it’s a fallacy to continue pursuing a venture that is not going to be profitable on the ground that you’ve already invested time and money in it.

Sound familiar, litigators? If you have any experience with litigation, you have probably experienced the sunk-costs fallacy firsthand. Let’s consider an example from my favorite hypothetical lawsuit, Paula Payne Windows v. Dawn Davis.

The Sunk Cost Fallacy in Litigation

Dawn Davis was the top sales person at Paula Payne Windows, but she became disgruntled when her business development budget was cut and she couldn’t do her annual trip to Vegas with her best customers. So she accepted a job offer from Paula Payne’s fierce competitor, Real Cheap Windows.

Then Paula Payne sued Dawn, claiming breach of contract and misappropriation of trade secrets. But the judge thought the non-compete was too broad and denied Paula Payne’s motion for a temporary injunction.

Six months later, Paula Payne had obtained no relief and spent over $50,000 on legal fees. Documents produced by Real Cheap showed that Dawn had brought several customers to Real Cheap, generating about $100,000 in revenue. Paula Payne’s CFO estimated that Paula Payne would have made about $20,000 in profit on those sales if the customers had stayed with Paula Payne.

“Paula, we’ve got to make a decision,” the company’s lawyer said to the founder and CEO. “Our trial date is only six months away,” he said, “and we need to hire a CPA as a damages expert.” And here’s the kicker: “I know a good one we can use, but he’ll need a deposit of $15,000.”

Paula grimaced. “Ok, and how much are your fees going to be from now through the trial?” she asked. “Hard to say,” her lawyer said, “but you’re looking at paying us at least another $50,000.” “So you may want to think about settling,” he said, “especially considering your damages may be less than $50,000.” He added that Real Cheap’s lawyer already indicated Real Cheap would be willing to do a walk-away settlement.

“No way,” Paula shot back. “What was the point of suing Dawn and Real Cheap and paying you $50,000 if I’m just going to quit now?”

And there it is. The Sunk Cost Fallacy. A rational business person would coldly look at the cost of going forward (around $65,000), the potential benefit (let’s assume a recovery of around $50,000), and the chance of success. Even assuming a better than even chance of success, it looks like the smart move for Paula Payne would be to settle for whatever she can get, or even to walk away.

The Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy

But of course real people—even sophisticated business people—don’t think like that. It doesn’t feel right to spend $50,000 on a project and then decide to shut it down. It’s easy to understand that emotion.

If want to put it in economic terms, you could say there is a psychological cost to giving up on a venture when you have already invested your time, money, and energy in it. The mental pain that Paula will feel if she quits is real, and in theory you could assign a dollar value to it. Isn’t that similar to what juries do when they consider “mental anguish” damages?

When you take that pain into account, then maybe the economic critique of the Sunk Cost Fallacy is itself a fallacy. The economic problem with the critique is that it doesn’t take all of the relevant costs into account.

Putting aside economics, there’s a more practical problem for Paula Payne’s lawyer. If he approaches the issue from purely an economic standpoint, he’s going to under-appreciate the importance of Paula’s emotions, and he won’t have a happy client. In other words, presenting the issue to Paula as purely dollars and cents doesn’t reflect high “emotional intelligence.”

It turns out there is a second principle at play: the Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy. It’s a fallacy to think that a client who has sunk costs should make decisions based purely on a rational assessment of the future economic costs and benefits. After all, Paula’s not a robot. In the words of Bob Schneider, she’s only blood and bones.

The First Law of Holes

Let’s assume that Paula Payne’s lawyer gets that. He has high emotional intelligence and is aware of the Sunk-Cost-Fallacy Fallacy. That means he will not be too quick to dismiss Paula’s objection that she has already spent $50,000 on the lawsuit. He will understand that for Paula, simply giving up is not an option, even if walking away makes economic sense. He will “feel her pain.”

dark-excavation-graphic-1601495
I’m fixing a hole, where the rain gets in

So, full speed ahead! Forget the fact that Paula Payne may have to spend over $65,000 on lawyer and expert fees to go to trial on a $40,000 lost profits claim. At least she’ll be able to look herself in the mirror and know she stood up for the rights of her company. Right?

Maybe. But here’s the problem. Chances are, the case is still going to settle. I’ve taken a non-compete case to trial before, but it’s rare. A trial of any kind of case is rare. Nine times out of ten (or more), it’s just a question of when the case settles, and for how much.

Let’s assume that six months in, Paula Payne Windows decides to keep moving forward. Then she spends another $30,000 on legal fees over the next three months. At that point, Real Cheap offers $20,000 to settle the case. Now Paula has an even more difficult decision. Settling is going to be even more painful because now she’s spent over $80,000.

This brings us to a third principle: the First Law of Holes. The First Law of Holes says when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging.

Yes, the pain of walking away after spending a lot of money is real. But that pain is only going to increase after you’ve spent even more money. In our hypothetical, Paula would have been better off—and probably felt better about the outcome—if she had stopped digging at the six-month mark.

So we’ve come full circle. In a sense, the First Law of Holes is just a version of the Sunk Cost Fallacy. But the First Law of Holes brings home the crucial point that sunk costs keep increasing. Better to cut your losses now than later.

That doesn’t necessarily mean the U.S. was wrong to go into Afghanistan, or that Paula Payne made a mistake when she decided to sue Dawn Davis and Real Cheap Windows. She understandably felt she had to do something to protect her company. And it is not to say that business people should never press forward with a lawsuit. Then I would be out of a job.

But whether we’re dealing with litigation, foreign policy, or day-to-day business decisions, we should be self-aware enough to recognize when the Sunk Cost Fallacy is tugging at our heart strings. Even if it’s just human nature, we should resist that pull. And sometimes the right decision will be to stop digging.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

MLK Day Lessons from the Movie “Selma”

MLK Day Lessons from the Movie “Selma”

If you’ve read my morning routine you know that one piece of it is listening to sports talk radio to find out for the final time if Lebron James is better than Michael Jordan. Another perennial drive-time debate is whether Bill Belichik has won so many games with the New England Patriots because he has Tom Brady as his quarterback, or if Brady has won so much because he has Belichik.

Wherever you come down in this debate, you have to admit the Patriots have had an amazing run in the Brady-Belichik era. Thirteen AFC Championship appearances. Eight Super Bowl appearances. Five Super Bowl wins. So far.

This is infuriating for fans of other teams because the NFL is supposedly built for “parity.” In contrast to college football, it rewards winners by giving them worse draft picks. Perhaps this is why, sadly, the Patriots have replaced my Dallas Cowboys as the NFL’s most hated team.

Haters will claim it’s the cheating. But some part of the credit for the Patriots’ astounding run should go to the well-known philosophy posted in their practice facility: Do Your Job.

This is a great mantra because in three little words it conveys two distinct messages, one of exhortation, the other of relaxation. “Do Your Job” says first, take care of your responsibilities. Your teammates are counting on you. But second it tells you not to worry too much. You don’t have to do anything spectacular, just do your job. Trust that if your teammates do their jobs too, the team will succeed.

As I wait to watch the Patriots play on the day before Martin Luther King Day, this reminds me of a scene from the 2014 historical drama Selma, directed by Ava DuVernay and starring David Oyelowo as Martin Luther King, Jr.

Selma tells the story of Dr. King leading the protests that culminated in the famous march(es) across Edmund Pettus Bridge, and ultimately, the Voting Rights Act of 1965. If you haven’t seen the movie, I highly recommend checking it out on Netflix.[1]

The scene that sticks in my mind takes place about 18 minutes into the movie, in the modest kitchen of the King home in Atlanta. Mrs. King is folding laundry at the kitchen table. The phone rings.

Coretta: Hello? [We hear a man speaking in ominous tones over the receiver, she hangs up as Martin walks in.]

Martin: Same thing? [She looks at him knowingly then turns away.] 

Coretta: When are y’all heading out? 

Martin: We, uh, head back to Selma at 5 am. Turned out to be an ideal staging ground. There’s a . . . a full couple of weeks planned, quite a bit to be done.

Coretta: [drinks from a glass of water] I see.  [Martin takes the trash bag out of the kitchen trash can.] That highway is nice now, get you there in a couple of hours. Good people in those parts, though. [She hands him a new garbage bag.][2] 

Martin: Well, I’m worried about the ones who ain’t so good. [He puts a new bag in the trash can]. This local sheriff, Jim Clark,[3] is supposed to be bad business. Won’t go down without a fight, they say. And since we don’t fight . . . Well, good a place to die as any, I guess. 

Coretta: I wish you wouldn’t talk like that.

Martin: It just takes the edge off. 

Coretta: You and your friends can joke about that. I don’t joke about that.

Martin: You’re right. I’m sorry.

Coretta: I’ll uh, put these things away in your bag now, I didn’t realize you were leaving so early [she walks out carrying some folded clothes]. 

[Martin turns off kitchen light, hesitates.]

This is a great, economical scene. It conveys a lot of information without a lot of action or dialog. You know the Kings are receiving harassing phone calls. You sense tension in their marriage. You get the exposition about what’s happening with the sheriff in Selma. And, perhaps most important, you see that Dr. King is a real flesh and blood person who has to balance his family life with the very real possibility that his activism could get him killed.

But there’s one part of this scene that really resonated with me. Did you spot it? Remember, this is Martin Luther King, who we see in the opening scene preparing to accept the Nobel Peace Prize. Martin Luther King, the hero who led the Civil Rights movement. I mean, today the dude has his own national holiday. Yet in this scene we see him taking out the trash?

Why did the director or screenplay writer include this detail? The Kings could have simply stood in the kitchen, or sat at the kitchen table, talking.

Maybe it was just to give the actors something to do so the dialog would sound more natural. But I suspect there was more to it. When we see Dr. King emptying the trash can, it’s a reminder. Even a person who is doing great things still has to deal with the mundane necessities of daily life.

Of course, when the people doing the great things are rich, they pay other people to do the tedious things. The wealthy can’t be bothered with even the simplest of tasks, like folding their own umbrellas.

But still, even Very Important People have to do a lot of the same things ordinary people do. They put their pants on one leg at a time just like the rest of us. Or to vary a common saying, their trash stinks too.

And seeing Martin Luther King take out the trash was a small but important lesson for white-collar “professionals.” It was especially necessary for me because I work in the profession with the whitest of collars: the law. There is a tendency for us lawyers—especially lawyers in the more “elite” firms—to think we’re above everyone else. We have advanced degrees. We have licenses. We don’t take out the trash; we have people who come through the office after 5:30 to do that.

And when your hourly rate is $500 or higher, you start to think your time is more valuable than other people’s. Why should you spend an hour doing yardwork when you could be billing that time?

I’m not saying lawyers–or other busy professionals–shouldn’t pay someone else to mow the grass. I’m more concerned with the mindset. Do you get frustrated with the time you have to spend doing “ordinary” things when you’re trying to accomplish something important? I know I do. And all I’m trying to do is build a law practice. It’s not like I’m leading a movement to overcome 100 years of state-sponsored terror and voter suppression.

But maybe we shouldn’t look at household chores as a hindrance. Why should we expect to be trusted with great things when we can’t be trusted with the little things? Selma reminds us that taking care of minor tasks we don’t really want to do is perhaps the simplest form of morality.

So do your job. Take out the trash. Or whatever the equivalent responsibility is for you.

And trust that if you do your job, and other people do theirs, great things can happen.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. Like most lawyers he’s still at the office when the housekeepers empty the trash.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] I recommend the movie with one significant caveat. As you may recall, there was some controversy over the film’s historical accuracy, particularly its portrayal of President Lyndon Johnson as a reluctant ally who King had to pressure into supporting the Voting Rights Act. Former Johnson aide Joe Califano blasted this portrayal as inaccurate. Director Ava DuVernay responded that she was telling a story, not making a documentary. This raises thorny questions: How much historical inaccuracy we should accept as artistic license? Do factual inaccuracies lessen the quality of a historical drama? Are minorities held to a double standard when they use artistic license? Interesting issues that I will save for another day.

[2] Apparently the clear plastic trash bag in the scene was an anachronism; such bags were not used in 1965. Also, you can see the blender on the counter is plugged into an outlet that has a green LED light. But let’s not quibble.

[3] Sheriff Clark was an ardent segregationist known for recruiting a horse-mounted posse of KKK members, wearing military style clothing, and carrying a cattle prod that he infamously used on black protestors. In his later life, Clark sold mobile homes, got accused of embezzlement, and even served time for conspiring to smuggle marijuana from Colombia. He was unrepentant to the end. In a 2006 interview, Clark said “I’d do the same thing today if I had to do it all over again.” See Jim Clark, Sheriff Who Enforced Segregation, Dies at 84.

Do Narcissists Make Better Lawyers?

Do Narcissists Make Better Lawyers?

In Book III of his Metamorphoses, the ancient Greek poet Ovid tells the story of Narcissus, the child of a naiad, Liriope, and the river-god Cephisus. Narcissus was “most beautiful” but had a “pride so fierce no boy, no girl, could touch him.”

One day a rejected youth prayed for Narcissus to get his comeuppance, and Nemesis, the Goddess of Vengeance, “judged the plea was righteous.” So she cursed Narcissus to fall in love with his own reflection in a pool. Narcissus endlessly stared at the pool, even pressing his lips to the water to kiss his own image. But “the vision is only shadow, only reflection, lacking any substance.”

Eventually, Narcissus figured out what was going on: “The truth at last. He is myself! I feel it, I know my image now. I burn with love of my own self; I start the fire I suffer.” But it was too late. “As the white frost is gone in morning sunshine, Narcissus, in the hidden fire of passion, wanes slowly . . . fading away.”[1]

This of course is the origin of the Klingon expression “revenge is a dish best served cold.” See Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan (Paramount 1982). It’s also where we get the term narcissism, which Webster’s defines as “excessive interest in or admiration of oneself and one’s physical appearance.”

Narcissistic personality disorder

The Greek myth of Narcissus is also the origin of a modern medical term: Narcissistic personality disorder. As with any psychological condition, it is largely a matter of degree, and there is no single dispositive factor.

But while there is no single defining characteristic of narcissistic personality disorder, the Mayo Clinic publishes this list of symptoms. I’ve grouped them into four categories:

  1. What a narcissist thinks about himself
  • “Inflated sense of their own importance”
  • “Have an exaggerated sense of self-importance”
  • “Have a sense of entitlement”
  • “Believe they are superior and can only associate with equally special people”
  • “Fragile self-esteem that’s vulnerable to the slightest criticism”
  1. What a narcissist desires from others
  • “Require constant, excessive admiration”
  • “Expect to be recognized as superior even without achievements that warrant it”
  • “Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations”
  • “Insist on having the best of everything – for instance, the best car or office”
  1. How a narcissist feels about others
  • “Lack of empathy for others”
  • “An inability or unwillingness to recognize the needs and feelings of others”
  • “Envious of others and believe others envy them”
  1. How a narcissist treats others
  • “Troubled relationships”
  • “Exaggerate achievements and talents”
  • “Monopolize conversations and belittle or look down on people they perceive as inferior”
  • “Expect special favors and unquestioning compliance with their expectations”
  • “Take advantage of others to get what they want”
  • “Behave in an arrogant or haughty manner, coming across as conceited, boastful and pretentious”

One more thing. Narcissists tend to be of a certain gender. But I won’t open that can of worms here.

I just want to distill the essence of narcissism and figure out if being a narcissist makes one a better lawyer. Because I’m a lawyer, and I like distilling essences.

I think the essential features of a narcissist are the same flaws the mythical Narcissus had: excessive self-love and excessive pride. In the workplace, these essential features of narcissism manifest as (1) an excessively high opinion of one’s abilities in relation to others and (2) excessive concern for getting credit from others.

Now that we’ve got a more precise working definition of narcissism, we can figure out if narcissists make better lawyers.

Are narcissists better lawyers?

The short answer is no. I don’t think narcissists make better lawyers.

But all else being equal, I’d bet that narcissists make more successful lawyers.

I posed a similar question in my post Are “Aggressive” Litigators More Effective? In both cases, the difficulty is disentangling the trait at issue from other traits that tend to coincide with it.

So first let’s separate narcissism from some positive traits it often accompanies: ambition, drive, boldness, to name a few. Those things can make you a more effective lawyer, but you can have them without being a narcissist.

So the question becomes: is a narcissist likely to be a better lawyer all else being equal? Assume two lawyers have the same experience, talents, and intelligence, but only one of them is a narcissist. Would you pick the narcissist to be your lawyer?

When we put it this way, I say no, for three reasons.

First, the narcissist’s inflated sense of self-importance is not helpful to the kind of work lawyers typically do. Despite what you see in movies and TV shows, good lawyering is not all bluster and bluffing. It takes discipline, organization, and diligence. The lawyer who thinks he’s hot shit—pardon my French—is less likely to be patient and methodical.

Second, narcissists just rub people the wrong way. A pompous or arrogant lawyer is usually a less persuasive lawyer.

Third, at the risk of mixing ancient Greek metaphors, lack of empathy is the narcissist’s Achilles’ heel. This is not to say that narcissists don’t get what makes people tick. I would bet the narcissist is better than most at understanding how to manipulate people. But the narcissist doesn’t really understand—or care—how other people feel. And that’s a big disadvantage. Excellent lawyers have a keen ability to put themselves in the other guy’s shoes.

But if I’m right, why does it seem like so many successful lawyers are narcissists?

Adam Grant may have some answers. He’s the top-rated professor at the Wharton School of Business and has written extensively on personality types in business leadership. In his article Tapping into the power of humble narcissism, Grant says “narcissists are more likely to rise up the ranks of the corporate elite and get elected to political office.” He chalks this up to the fact that people are drawn to the confidence that narcissists exude.

So should we strive to be more narcissistic to get ahead? Not necessarily. Grant touts a kinder, gentler version of narcissism: “Humble narcissists bring the best of both worlds: they have bold visions, but they’re also willing to acknowledge their weaknesses and learn from their mistakes.”

Makes sense to me. But to paraphrase another ancient text, what does it profit a man to be a narcissist, if he loses his own soul? On this question I think it’s useful to consult another ancient Greek, one who is less entertaining than Ovid, but perhaps more insightful.

Is narcissism a character virtue?

In his bestselling Nichomachean Ethics, Aristotle doesn’t address narcissism per se, but he does discuss vanity.

Vanity comes up in the course of Aristotle examining the major character virtues. Aristotle sees each virtue as a mean between two opposite vices. So, for example, with respect to how one responds to danger, the two extremes are cowardice and foolhardiness. Courage is the golden mean between them.

When it comes to claiming external rewards for oneself, vanity is the obvious vice:

Vain people . . . are foolish and do not know themselves; and they make this obvious. For they undertake commonly honored exploits, but are not worthy of them, and then they are found out. They adorn themselves with clothes and ostentatious style and that sort of thing; and since they both wish for good fortune and wish it to be evident, they talk about it, thinking it will bring them honor.

It’s easy to understand why vanity is a vice. But what’s the opposite of vanity? Aristotle uses a word usually translated as “pusillanimity,” which means timid or cowardly, but that’s really not the opposite of vanity, is it?

No, we don’t have a simple modern English word for the opposite of vanity. And that tells us something: we don’t think of the absence of vanity as a character flaw.

Aristotle, on the other hand, thought failing to claim the honor you deserve is a real character defect:

For the pusillanimous person is worthy of goods, but deprives himself of the goods he is worthy of, and would seem to have something bad in him because he does not think he is worthy of the goods. Indeed he would seem not to know himself; for if he did, he would aim at the things he is worthy of, since they are goods. For all that, such people seem hesitant rather than foolish.

But this belief of theirs actually seems to make them worse. For each sort of person seeks what [he thinks] he is worth; and these people hold back from fine actions and practices, and equally from external goods, because they think they are unworthy of them.

While we don’t tend to fault people for a lack of vanity, we can at least grasp Aristotle’s point. We see a version of this idea in contemporary self-help advice for professionals, especially women. See, for example, the bestseller Knowing Your Value: Women, Money, and Getting What You’re Worth by Mika Brzezinski.

So, while we don’t like vanity, we understand why hesitating to claim the “external goods” you are worthy of is a problem.

But don’t most people–men and women–have the opposite problem? You see this sentiment in the clichéd lament that Millennials are too “entitled.” And it’s not just Generation Y. It feels like it’s human nature to claim more than you deserve, not less. So you’d think vanity would be more common than pusillanimity, and worse.

But surprisingly, Aristotle says precisely the opposite. He claims that pusillanimity arises more often, and is worse.

To understand why, consider what lies between vanity and pusillanimity. Remember, Aristotle defines each character virtue as a mean between two vices. In this case, the Greek word for the mean between vanity and pusillanimity is megalopsychia.

This word is often translated as “magnanimity,” which Webster’s defines as generous or high-minded. A more literal translation is “greatness of soul” (megalo = great, psychia = soul). This better captures what Aristotle means, but “great-souled-ness” is kind of awkward, so I’ll stick with “magnanimity.”

“The magnanimous person,” Aristotle says, “seems to be the one who thinks himself worthy of great things and is really worthy of them.” So far, this sounds ok to our modern ears, though maybe a little elitist.

But then Aristotle goes a step further. The thing the magnanimous person is most concerned about claiming is honor, “the greatest of the external goods.” “Hence the magnanimous person has the right concern with honors and dishonors.”[2]

Now he’s gone too far. This “magnanimous” person sounds a little, dare I say, narcissistic.

Today the prevailing attitude about claiming  honor is more egalitarian. Yes, we want people who have traditionally been oppressed to claim more external rewards. Know your worth! But at the same time, we bristle at the notion of “great” people claiming great honors. Who do they think they are?

I have to admit my bias tends to run in this direction too. But that’s all the more reason to ponder Aristotle’s view that magnanimity is a virtue and pusillanimity a greater vice than vanity. If you’re hard-wired not to make a big a deal about your own accomplishments, maybe you’re not “living your best life.” You may need to compensate by watching how successful narcissists do it.

Learn how to claim credit. Just don’t stare too long at your own reflection.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. His fragile self-esteem is vulnerable to the slightest criticism.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] Translation by Rolfe Humphries (Indiana University Press 1983).

[2] Translation by Terence Irwin (Hackett 1985).

Are You a Teacher or a Storyteller?

Are You a Teacher or a Storyteller?

People have different communication styles

One thing I’ve learned after almost 20 years of marriage is that everybody has a different communication style. Let’s take the time my lovely wife was almost caught in the crossfire of a Houston highway gang shootout. I don’t remember the exact conversation, but it was probably something like this:

Me: Hi, honey, how was your day?

Her: Oh my goodness, it was crazy. You’ll never believe what happened.

Me: What happened?

Her: Well, you remember the kids had appointments at the orthodontist today, right?

Me: Right [I didn’t really remember]

Her: Their appointment was at 3:00, so we left around 2:00 and got on I-45, and then . . .

Time out. If you’re like me, you may already feel a little impatient. You just want to know what happened! You don’t want to be kept in suspense.

If this had happened to me, the conversation would be more like this:

Wife: How was your day today?

Me: It was good, but when I was driving to work I got stuck in a police chase. The guys the police were chasing pulled over and pointed their guns out their windows! I was right in the middle of it. It was scary, but luckily I was able to maneuver around the police cars and drive away unharmed.

See how I got right to the point and summarized what happened?

I used to wish my wife would do that too, so we could get to more important things, like watching Monday Night Football. But eventually I realized that’s just not her style. And now I actually enjoy the way she turns the day’s events into a story.

She’s a “storyteller.” I’m a “teacher.” She’s good at telling a story that keeps your attention. I’m good at explaining complicated facts or legal issues in a simplified way that teaches the audience the essential things they need to know. At least that’s what I wrote in my website profile.

But what’s the best style for the courtroom?

Trouble is, I’m a trial lawyer, not a teacher. Is my style right for the courtroom? It seems like most great trial lawyers are known as master storytellers. And good storytelling has tremendous psychological appeal. If you can frame the facts of your case as a compelling story of right and wrong, you may get the judge or jury on your side before the first witness even takes the stand.

Part of what makes storytelling effective is the suspense of not knowing what’s going to happen. I discovered a great example of this recently on YouTube. The video was G.E. Smith talking about playing in Bob Dylan’s band.

Those of you of a certain age will remember G.E. Smith. In the early 90s my college buddies and I religiously watched him fronting the Saturday Night Live band each week. (I mean, other than all the Saturday nights when we were dating extremely attractive coeds, of course.) We always got a kick out of seeing the different guitars G.E. would trot out. And if you’re really old, you may even remember him from those early Hall and Oates videos on MTV.

Anyway, in this video G.E. Smith tells the story of how he got to tour with Bob Dylan, one of his childhood idols. Before you read the rest of this, watch the video here.

Did you watch it? You saw that playing vintage guitars isn’t G.E.’s only talent. He also has a knack for storytelling. I think there are two key elements: he keeps you in suspense about what happened, and there’s a point at the end.

It wouldn’t be quite the same if G.E. had my style. If he just wanted to “teach the material,” he might say something like this:

I got the opportunity to tour with my idol Bob Dylan because at the New York studio audition, which I thought at the time was just an informal jam session, I knew one of his more obscure early songs called “Pretty Peggy-O.” Bob was impressed enough that he asked me to play guitar in his band. I toured with him for several years while I was still doing Saturday Night Live, and it was a great experience.

In my defense, this version gets right to the point and doesn’t waste words. But it’s also kind of dry. So do I need to change my style to be more engaging in the courtroom?

I think it depends. The opening statement in a jury trial is an obvious opportunity to tell a story. But there are many courtroom situations where storytelling is not a good idea.

For example, an oral argument in an appellate court is not the right venue for telling a story. Sure, you want to present key facts in a way that supports your legal argument, but you don’t want to rehash underlying facts or details of the trial. The judges have already read the briefs. They want you to focus like a laser on the difficult issues they have to decide.

bed-book-book-bindings-1447273
Stories. Good for kids. Not always good for courtrooms.

Even in the trial court, storytelling isn’t always the best strategy. Let me give you an example based loosely on cases I’ve handled.

Let’s say I’m defending against a motion for a temporary injunction to enforce a non-compete. The plaintiff’s lawyer starts off the hearing by telling the story of what happened: Mr. Employee came to work for the company, the company gave him leads, confidential customer information, and training, Mr. Employee decided to leave, and then he jumped ship to a competitor, hoping his clients would follow.

That’s a pretty typical approach. Of course, the plaintiff’s lawyer is going to tell the story in a way that emphasizes the factual grounds for granting an injunction.

When it’s my turn to talk to the judge, one approach would be to tell the same story, but from my client’s perspective. “Your Honor, about nine years ago, my client went to work for ABC Company and started building his client base from nothing, using only his laptop and hard work . . .” You get the idea.

But I don’t do that. Instead I go right to my strongest points:

Your Honor, you’re not going to hear any evidence today that a single client has moved its business from ABC Company to my client’s new employer. So there is no imminent harm whatsoever, and any harm that might occur could be adequately compensated with damages.

This can be an instant momentum changer. If I’m lucky, the judge immediately picks up on my argument and says to the other lawyer, “wait a minute, is it true that at this point your client hasn’t lost any customers?” And so the balance shifts.

You see, the longer I’ve practiced in trial courts, the more I’ve learned the value of leading with your best stuff and getting right to the point.

But I still like my wife’s stories.

___________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

 

Are “Aggressive” Litigators More Effective?

Are “Aggressive” Litigators More Effective?

Lawyers, especially litigators, apparently have anger issues. Read a dozen profiles of litigators on law firm websites, and you’re sure to see many describe themselves as “aggressive.”

Just once it would be refreshing for a litigator’s profile to say something like “Hailey’s clients appreciate her passive approach to litigation.”

But no, lawyers apparently believe that clients want litigators who are aggressive (whatever that means). I’ve always wondered about this, but it’s been on my mind more than usual because I recently got a good result for a client by taking a passive approach.

This raises an important question: are “aggressive” litigators actually better for clients? Do they get better results? After accumulating 20+ years of anecdotal evidence, I think I have some answers.

But first we must define what it means for a lawyer to be “aggressive.”

Aggressive lawyer personalities

It could just mean an aggressive personality. You know the type because you’ve seen it in TV shows and movies. Pounds the table. Raises his voice. Won’t back down from any confrontation. “We’ll see you in court!”

This type has become even more prominent because it’s the kind of lawyer favored by a certain very famous client. Lawyers Michael Cohen and Marc Kasowitz are two obvious examples.

Here’s Cohen talking to a journalist who was about to publish a story unfavorable to his client: “Tread very f***ing lightly because what I’m going to do to you is going to be f***ing disgusting. Do you understand me? Don’t think you can hide behind your pen because it’s not going to happen. I’m more than happy to discuss it with your attorney . . . because, mother***er, you’re going to need it.”

Kasowitz is also a tough talker. When a stranger sent him a critical email, Kasowitz responded with these choice words: “I’m on you now. You are f***ing with me now. Let’s see who you are. Watch your back, b**ch. . . . You are such a piece of s**t. Call me. Don’t be afraid, you piece of s**t. Stand up. If you don’t call, you’re just afraid.”

I’d say those two are pretty “aggressive” (at least by phone and email).

But when lawyers market themselves as “aggressive,” they’re not just saying “I know how to act like a jerk.” They’re also talking about tactics, especially when their targets are more genteel and “sophisticated” clients, like big companies that have their own in-house lawyers. These clients want—or think they want—a lawyer who will take an aggressive approach to a lawsuit.

Of course, an aggressive personality does not necessarily mean an aggressive approach. There are plenty of litigators who have aggressive personalities but demure when it comes to taking action.

For example, remember all those F-bombs Michael Cohen dropped to pressure a journalist not to publish a story? The story was published. There was no lawsuit. And when Kasowitz fired off a confrontational letter to the New York Times threatening a defamation lawsuit, I waited eagerly to see what the lawsuit would say. I’m still waiting.

No, an aggressive personality doesn’t necessarily mean aggressive tactics. And the converse is also true. A lawyer can have the personality of Mr. Rogers and pursue aggressive tactics, smiling politely the whole time.

I imagine the notoriously button-downed Bob Mueller is one of these types: a mild-mannered gentleman who will gut you like a fish in court. (Just ask Paul Manafort if he misses his Persian rugs sitting in a jail cell.)

On the other hand, there does seem to be some connection between an aggressive personality and an aggressive approach. For starters, people with more aggressive personalities are probably more likely to pick litigation as a practice area. And I would be willing to bet that all else being equal, a litigator with a more aggressive personality is a little more likely to favor aggressive tactics.

But here again, it depends on how we define aggressive. I say an “aggressive” approach to litigation essentially means two things: having courage and being proactive.

The aggressive approach to litigation

Courage in litigation translates to a willingness to assert “creative” factual or legal theories and a willingness to fight out disputes in court, even if there’s a decent chance you’re going to lose.

But does it really take courage to do these things? The lawyer is trying to make money, and if anything, taking these risks means more billable hours.

True, but if there’s one thing that motivates lawyers more than money, it’s fear. Specifically, it’s the fear of losing, fear of getting embarrassed in the courtroom, even the plain-old fear of looking like you don’t know what you’re doing. These fears are what will stop litigators from taking a stand for their clients.

The second part of an aggressive approach is being proactive. This is the opposite of being reactive. You won’t find the adjective “reactive” in any lawyer profiles, but the reactive approach to litigation is common. A reactive litigator just reacts to events in the lawsuit, particularly deadlines and actions taken by opposing counsel.

accomplishment-action-adventure-461593
Litigation requires courage

Unfortunately, you often see lawyers who combine a reactive approach with an aggressive personality. They lurch from one crisis to another. They may go weeks without devoting any attention to the case, and then when a deadline is a few days away, they suddenly go on the warpath.

Many litigators get by and make a good living with this approach, especially if they master the art of appearing “aggressive,” managing client expectations, and taking credit when good results happen.

But this “aggressive-reactive” combination is not optimal for getting good results.

Fewer litigators are genuinely proactive, because being proactive requires discipline, and discipline is well, you know, boring. Being proactive requires a plan, a methodology. “I love it when a plan comes together.” Otherwise you’re just bouncing from one crisis to another. “Putting out fires” is not being proactive.

In short, I define an aggressive approach to litigation as being courageous and proactive. But we still haven’t answered the question: is an aggressive litigator better for the client?

Pros and cons of the “aggressive” litigator

Here we must be careful to correct for our biases. Lawyers with aggressive personalities are likely to believe that having an aggressive personality makes a lawyer more effective, and vice-versa.

What type am I? A guy with a highly aggressive personality is not going to sit down and write an article over-analyzing the concept of aggressiveness, so you already know the answer. Don’t get me wrong, I like to duke it out in court. But that’s because I like competing and, honestly, “performing” for a crowd, not because I like personal confrontation.

So, I want to adjust for my own bias and give aggressive personalities their due. I’ll acknowledge three main advantages to an aggressive personality in litigation.

First is the simple fact that aggressive people often get their way—especially with little things—simply because dealing with them is a pain in the ass. If you know opposing counsel is a jerk, you’re more likely to say “ok, fine, we’ll do the deposition at your office.”

Second is the fact that appearance can be reality in litigation. The vast majority of cases settle, and settlement expectations can be shaped by personalities. A lawyer with a genuinely aggressive personality is probably better at putting on a show that conveys the appearance that “we’re not afraid to fight this out in court.”

Third, there is some connection between anger and courage. Maybe anger is the wrong word. I’m thinking of what the Greeks called thumos, which might be translated as “spiritedness.” It’s the feeling that takes over when someone has physically threatened your loved ones or, in this case, financially threatened your client. Generally, a more spirited lawyer will be more willing to take a risk to defend a client.

Yes, in some ways an aggressive personality can make a litigator more effective, but overall, I think the benefits are minor. And there are drawbacks.

The biggest problem with lawyers who have “aggressive” personalities is that they’re not in control of their emotions. They let pride and anger cloud their judgment, and that causes mistakes. An angry lawyer can do OK if he’s just blocking and tackling. But do you want your quarterback to be angry? Or do you want a Joe Montana with ice in his veins?

On the whole, I think it’s a wash. An aggressive personality will be a benefit in some litigation situations and a hindrance in others. If anything, it’s a slight negative. In any case, I tend to favor lawyers just being themselves. If there’s one personality trait that will make you unpersuasive in litigation, it’s being a fake.

But what about aggressive litigation tactics? Regardless of personality, will a lawyer who takes an aggressive approach to litigation get better results?

If we stick with my definition of aggressive as being courageous and proactive, then I think the answer is a tentative yes. (How’s that for a non-aggressive answer?)

Litigation is not a tennis match (no offense to tennis). It’s more like tackle football. A lawyer who isn’t willing to get his nose bloodied is less likely to get good results. You need the courage to take the risk of losing. And proactive lawyers who push a lawsuit forward are usually going to get better results than those who just react to what others do.

Being aggressive in the right way at the right time

But what about the recent experience I mentioned? Does my successful experiment with  a “passive” approach call into question the aggressive approach to litigation?

athletes-audience-competition-171568
Litigation is not tennis

To some extent, yes. Here was the situation. My client was a business that got dragged into a lawsuit with multiple defendants. The plaintiff’s damage theory against my client was fundamentally flawed. We pointed that out early in the case, and the plaintiff indicated he might just voluntarily dismiss my client from the case.

So I waited. The last thing I wanted to do was bill my client a lot of money for taking discovery that could end up being unnecessary.

But you have to understand. This was hard for me. I wanted to do something.

Weeks went by with no activity. I couldn’t stand it. I suggested asking for the plaintiff’s deposition to try to prompt some action. But my client wanted to sit tight and wait. So I waited some more.

A couple weeks later the plaintiff dismissed my client from the case. It was over. Naturally, I took credit for our wise strategy of doing nothing.

But seriously, in hindsight my client made the right call. If I had been aggressive, it would have cost the client more money, and who knows, it might have irritated the plaintiff to the point of keeping my client in the lawsuit just to be difficult.

That got me thinking. Truth is, an effective litigator is aggressive about the right things, for the right reason, at the right time.

That reminded me of something I read in college. This is precisely what Aristotle said about the virtue of bravery.

You know Aristotle. He’s the guy who said: “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence, then, is not an act, but a habit.”[1] This is the most popular philosophical quote in pop culture outside of Nietzche’s “that which does not kill me makes me stronger.”

But I digress. Aristotle had a lot to say about bravery in his Nichomachean Ethics, including this: “Whoever stands firm against the right things and fears the right things, for the right end, in the right way, at the right time, and is correspondingly confident, is the brave person; for the brave person’s actions and feelings reflect what something is worth and what reason [prescribes].”

This is a strikingly sober definition of a brave person. One might even object that this takes all the zing out of bravery. Imagine Mel Gibson in Braveheart exhorting his men to “stand firm for the right end, in the right way!” It doesn’t exactly get the blood boiling.

But Aristotle understood this. He did not want to reduce bravery to just another form of knowledge, as he said Socrates did. Instead he tried to strike a balance. He wanted to distinguish the virtue of bravery from raw emotion, but without denying the physical and emotional nature of bravery.

“Brave people act because of what is fine,” Aristotle said, “and their emotion cooperates with them.” In contrast, people who “fight because of their feelings, not because of what is fine or as reason [prescribes]” have “something similar” to bravery. This bravery caused by emotion is “the most natural sort,” but it is not true bravery until “decision and the goal have been added to it.”

In other words, the right kind of brave person doesn’t seek out danger just for the thrill of it, but when achieving the right goal requires bravery, the brave person’s emotions cooperate.

I think that’s a pretty good definition of the kind of “aggressive” litigator a client should want. If I have to take an aggressive position or take a risk in court to defend a client’s interests, I want my emotions to cooperate. But I want reason, not emotion, to drive the decision and the goal.

Because losing in court may not kill me, but it doesn’t make my client stronger.

_________________________________________________________________

IMG_4571Zach Wolfe (zwolfe@fleckman.com) is a Texas trial lawyer who handles non-compete and trade secret litigation at his firm Fleckman & McGlynn, PLLC. He uses *** for bad words because hey, this is a family blog.

These are his opinions, not the opinions of his firm or clients, so don’t cite part of this post against him in an actual case. Every case is different, so don’t rely on this post as legal advice for your case.

[1] This quote is actually misattributed to Aristotle, as explained here, but it’s close enough to the point Aristotle was making.