The Importance of a "Cool Head"
When I was a young, not-so-cynical first-year law student, a professor once explained his belief that the law was basically ritualized combat - a strict set of rules and procedures that allow people to settle their differences without the use of force. At the time, I thought the prof was engaging in hyperbole and, to a large degree, he was. However, he does make a unique point. From a utilitarian perspective, our civil justice system provides a somewhat uniform set of rules for the resolution of disputes. To that end, a person contemplating filing a lawsuit can theoretically evaluate the pros and cons (both monetary and otherwise) of what seeking a formal resolution will entail. While this is all great in theory, very few prospective litigants have the ability to make such an evaluation. The problem? Emotions. Pride, anger, spite, a sense of being wronged, etc., can all detrimentally play a role in a particular person's motivation to file a lawsuit. They are the emotions that keep many lawyers fully employed.Many times litigation begins when someone gets angry and has an otherwise irrational response to a small problem. This anger (or other emotion) almost certainly elevates the severity of the dispute and can result in the eventual need to engage an attorney.
There is a famous quote from Shakespeare routinely used by lawyers that I try to remember when I feel myself starting to take the arguments of opposing counsel personally: "And do as adversaries do in law / Strive mightily, but eat and drink as friends." (The Taming of the Shrew, 1.2.280), Tranio. This maxim holds true in law as well as business. A wise old lawyer once told me that learning when and how to argue is easy - it is learning when not to argue that takes time. Sure, lawyers are argumentative by nature, but our job is not simply to fight. Like anything in life, a certain amount of tact is needed to properly address the specific needs of a given set of facts. I think a good habit to avoid escalating a would-be calm situation is to recognize one's initial emotional response and give yourself a small amount of time to "cool off." I use a 24-hour rule. If I receive a call, letter, email, et cetera that starts to raise my blood pressure, I shelve the issue for one day to let my head clear. This was a hard learned lesson as I have been burned with hotheaded emails in the past.
In my opinion, one of the greatest tools that a lawyer has is objectivity. Most of my clients either want to pick a fight or have already gotten into a fight. The role of the attorney is to evaluate the merits of a client's claims and defenses without the pride and other emotions that inherently cloud the judgment of individuals involved in civil litigation. I cannot overstate this point. In my experience, some of the biggest client mistakes arise from irrational, emotionally-based motives that end up having real negative consequences on the client. No matter how much you pay your attorney, you will almost certainly never recover the "pound of flesh" that many clients mistakenly seek out. The bottom line is that keeping a cool head will save you time and money. Attorneys are essential for many disputes, but not all of them. Take five (or maybe 24) and evaluate your problems with a cool head. It will pay greatly in the long run.