Matters Column

Justice, like beauty, often lies in the eye of the beholder

April 18, 2014
| By Bill Rohn |
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Odd things happen in courtrooms — which is one more reason to wish that spring break vacations in Clearwater Beach, Fla., could last longer than they do.

We all have reasons for wanting one more day away from work. Make that one more week.

Teachers hope students will study harder after a seven-day break. Sellers hope buyers will suddenly buy more. Doctors and nurses hope that red tape related to treatment options will be thinner and that patient needs will be met more quickly.

And, to the extent that people visit courthouses because they can't resolve disputes on their own, lawyers hope they will suddenly be able to guarantee courtroom results.

But in the real world, there are no guarantees in litigation beyond legal expense and the certainty that the loser of any legal dispute will often believe the winner got away with something.

Because odd things happen in courtrooms.

Like the time a witness flip-flopped on the witness stand and, when asked why his courtroom testimony differed from his prior statements, said, "Well, I was under oath in the courtroom. I wasn't under oath when we were back at your office."

Or the time I asked a juror what had swayed her decision at the end of a two-week trial, to which she responded, "I was confused during the first week. But during the last couple days, I started having visions of the plaintiff at night and decided that this was a sign that his company should win."

Or the time a judge announced that the winner had won but the victory was totally unrelated to the arguments its counsel had made for four straight days.

During my first year of practice, I remember heading toward the Kent County Courthouse with a senior partner as we prepared to ask a judge — on behalf of our powerful and nation-wide client — to put a little guy who wanted to compete with us out of business.

Having worked on a brief for a week and hoping to impress my employer, I offered a very trite, "Well, today, we'll finally get justice."

The partner's response was, "We don't always go to court for justice. We do always go to court for decisions."

Later that afternoon, after Goliath had beaten David, I thought about how justice, like beauty, often lies in the eye of the beholder. If it's fairly accurate to say that half of all courtroom contestants are unhappy at the end of most trials, then two quick suggestions might be in order.

The first suggestion is to find a lawyer who wins most of his or her cases, while staying far, far away from the barrister who claims to have never lost a trial. Odd things happen in courtrooms, and the lawyer who claims to have never lost a case is often a lawyer who hasn't been in a courtroom very often.

An equally important thought is to always look for the opportunity to settle a dispute, hopefully after solid preparation has led to a settlement that is very palatable.

"Palatable" is often "preferable" to a 50/50 shot at "justice." So the good lawyer/client team is the team whose preparation shows no fear of trial, but also no fear of resolution.

All of which reminds me of one morning in the mid-1990s when a judge asked another lawyer and me if there was any chance our clients could try one last time to find a way to settle a dispute that was otherwise scheduled for trial in Ionia county.

We solemnly shook our heads "no" — in part, because you never want to miss a chance to look solemn in a courtroom.

His honor's response? "Well, give me two minutes to put my robe on and then let the perjury begin," is what he said.

I think he was kidding. Still, you never forget some of the odd things that you hear in courtrooms.

So another vacation ends. And this week it's back to court — which is where people go when they can't settle disputes on their own.

Bill Rohn is a trial partner and Trial Practice Group chairman in the law firm of Varnum LLP. He can be reached at werohn@varnumlaw.com.

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