Do You Really Want To File a Lawsuit?

As the Cheap Honest Lawyer, I must honestly tell you that law suits, even at my low hourly rates, are not cheap. They are expensive, very expensive. Trying lawsuits is very labor-intensive; it's not cheap, even with me who is cheaper than dirt, because this business of trying lawsuit takes a lot of hours. Clients tell me that they don't care about whether the other side can pay a judgment or how much it costs, it's a matter of principle. I tell them that their principles will evaporate the moment they receive my first invoice. You don't get involved in a lawsuit unless you absolutely have to and unless you know with some certainty that it's going to be worth the money you'll spend on it.

In most lawsuits there is another side, and if you are the plaintiff, you should expect that the defendant will file a claim against you. This is where things get nasty. Someone whom you don’t like very much will be calling you a liar and worse. This will bother you more than you might expect and keep you awake at night. I think the biggest cost in a lawsuit is the psychological cost. You may begin to obsess about the past, running over the events that generated the lawsuit again and again. It’s like walking down the street backwards: you pay more attention to where you’ve been than where you’re going. This isn’t a good way to live your life or run your business.

If a lot is at stake in the lawsuit, you can expect an appeal after the trial is over. Once the appeal is filed, it will probably be a year and half before you get a decision. Remember: the court of appeals can send you back to the trial court to do it all over again. And if someone doesn't like the appellate court's decision, he can appeal that decision up another level, sometimes up another two levels. And all this is just as true when you're a defendant and the trial court has found that you have done nothing wrong. This whole process can take years or even, in some cases, decades. I had a case where my client, a bank that had foreclosed on a residence, filed to evict the former owner. Although the normal time from filing an eviction to the tenant vacating the house is about a month, it was four and half years before the house was empty and then only because the former owner had died.

It doesn't necessarily get a lot better when, after all the expense, the appeals and the shenanigans of opposing counsel, you finally end up with a dollars-and-cents judgment in your favor. That judgment doesn't pay itself. You have to go out and find assets belonging to the party you defeated at trial so you can seize them and sell them. And to find and sell available assets may well require . . . yes, another lawsuit. Collecting your judgment is often not an easy matter because Texas is the most debtor-protective state in the union. Why is this true, you ask? Immigration policy. Who would come to Texas before air conditioning? Answer: People running from the law and from their creditors.

All these factors combine to argue persuasively that in any lawsuit you are involved in, whether as plaintiff or as defendant, you need to develop at the very outset an exit strategy – a plan that maximizes the bang you get for the buck you pay your lawyer. Sometimes that means immediate negotiation for a settlement before anyone goes to court or an early mediation once a case is filed. Other cases will dictate aggressive lawyering so that your opponent will see both the merit in your case and the virtue in a settlement more generous to you than what he anticipated at the start. A weak case, on the other hand, will call for a quick settlement on the best terms you can get, without wasting money on a lawyer whose skills cannot significantly better the outcome.

I believe you will find my greatest value to you is my ability and willingness to explain in clear, understandable terms, how our sometimes puzzling American legal system works. I honed my ability to make the mysteries of the law intelligible by teaching beginning law students during my four years as a law school professor many years ago. In deciding how your lawsuit should be conducted, there are no questions you should be too embarrassed to ask; I encourage them all . . . including questions about my bills. You can't make your decisions intelligently without knowing how the process works and what the consequences of your decisions are likely to be.

And you shouldn't get the impression from reading this that I am squeamish about actually trying cases. Far from it. I love trying cases. I love taking a liar apart on the witness stand, playing with him like a cat playing with a mouse. I like being better prepared and sharper than the big firm lawyers I am often up against. I like winning. But I don't think my clients should pay me just to enjoy myself.

And in tough times I have seen lawyers spending way too many hours on cases that should long ago have been settled. Why? Because they are billing hourly and don't want their fees to stop coming in. I understand that, but I don't do it. I don't cut corners on the work I do because half-hearted lawyering is ineffective – and I don't take any action unless I think it's worth the cost. I will send you copies of everything I send out or file so you will see what you're paying for. I will confer with you regularly to discuss strategy and costs. And I will tell you when I think it's time to cut bait. Be careful who you hire as your lawyer. It's your money; don't waste it.

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