Proverbs for Courthouse Litigants
Over the years I’ve had a fondness for proverbs. By definition, a proverb is “a short pithy saying in general use, stating a general truth or piece of advice.” Propositions that have been called proverbs can be found in all religious texts, as well as in the writings of philosophers (and armchair philosophers, also known as Bloggers in some circles). In general, I think of a proverb as a saying that is able to capture an essence of truth that can be shared by many people. Typically proverbs deal with moral or ethical questions or observations. In the course of studying and practicing law over the past 10 years, I’ve noticed how being a lawyer gives one an interesting view of life, human behavior, morality and ethics. My observations, over time, coupled with the word-smithing that is what we lawyers live and breathe, have led me to coming up with my own proverbs, some of which I’ve tried to formulate below. I’ll be updating this list from time to time as more come to mind and I boil them down better, so keep watch if you’re at all interested. The thoughts distilled below are the products of my own observations and musings in the face of the huge problems, dilemmas, human dramas and personal crises that we see coming through our courtrooms every day. I just hope they can prove helpful to people who find themselves in courtrooms or facing legal problems for whatever reason. Here they are…
The Law’s answer to your problem will never fully meet your expectations. The Law’s job is to balance competing expectations in the multitude–not to simply fulfill yours.
It’s healthier to think of the Law as a measuring-stick for your own behavior, and not a rod for judging others.
The Law will tend to be on your side, the more you tend to act according to its standards, and the moral expectations of the society who wrote the Law.
When you are a plaintiff seeking to right a wrong, prepare yourself for trial by comparing your behavior with your opponent’s. Be honest with yourself, and your lawyer, about your own shortcomings, and be prepared to consider your opponent’s behavior from his own point of view. This exercise alone can help center you to withstand cross-examination.
When you are a defendant charged with a crime, and you honestly believe you are innocent or that the allegations against you are exaggerated, do not feel alone. Find a sympathetic and trustworthy lawyer, and take heart in remembering three things: life is not fair; the government does make mistakes; and you know who you are and what you have and have not done. This will help you keep your strength, which you will need.
Anger on the witness stand is often appropriate, and just as often unproductive. When we express ourselves with anger, we often distort our message. The best practice is to focus your anger into calm articulation. The cool-blue center of the flame draws the fact-finder to your truth, while the flame’s flickering blade distracts him with fear.
A court is a house, each of whose bricks is a person. From the clerk to the coordinator, to the lawyers, the judge and the jurors, the only things that matter to your case are people, people, people. People tend to help those whom they like, and personal opinions are contagious. They pass through the crowd via offhand comments, facial expressions and body language in response to your words and behavior. Therefore, to maximize your chances of success in court, show your very best self at all times.
When you go to to court, remember why the courthouse exists, and who it was built for. It was built for you.*
*FOOTNOTE: (Not only you, but also for others, but it’s important to remember that the Founding Fathers of the United States and the drafters of the Constitution had you generally in mind, as a citizen or resident or denizen of this country, in the establishment of the judiciary). Do not look upon the courthouse as a place controlled by some powerful elite. Look upon it as a beacon of justice and democracy established for you. Because halls of justice exist expressly in order to ensure a fair hearing and just outcomes for you, and people like you, for all people, in fact–and not for some so-called elite group or private club. You are a beneficiary of the court. The judges, lawyers, bailiffs and officials are simply trustees of the justice you deserve, who are there to ensure that peace, order, and justice are to prevail. This does not mean you will always get what you want in a courthouse–that is largely up to you and the merits of your case, the quality and honesty of your lawyer, and human nature, to be honest. But it can be much better for your spirit and courage if you can hold your head high, recognizing that, in the heart of our Constitution, you truly, as a member of The People, are an owner of the res publica that is the courthouse. As you should feel on any public street or roadway–American pride, self-reliance, respect for others, and responsibility–so ought you feel in any courthouse in America–you are an owner in the political sense of this important space. Therefore, you should expect to receive as much fairness here as anywhere else–moreso, even–and you ought consider your responsibility for this space, the courthouse, and your conduct in it, as well. In a courthouse, none of us are consumers where “the customer is always right.” We are citizens, seeking truth through the most refined customs and rules of law that the progress of history has arguably produced to date. To wit: a fair fight, with rules of engagement. So hold your head high, speak your truth, don’t let there be a chip on your shoulder, don’t give up, and be open to reason and compromise. (OK, that was more like a speech than a proverb!)
NOTE: To see some of these proverbs rendered in an amusing video, go here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mcQV3N7qp9s