Contrary to what nearly every stand-up comedian says, the vast majority of lawyers are honest, hard-working and fair people. They offer a valuable service to their clients and to the community. They help people at some of their worst times and work hard to represent people in front of a complex and intimidating system.
They may be the butt of jokes, but everyone is happy to know a lawyer when they need one.
However, as talented and as useful as they are, they are still only human. They can’t predict the future, they can’t read other people’s minds and they can’t possibly know everything, even about their chosen fields.
So, if you ever find yourself needing the services of a good lawyer, bear in mind that there are many questions even the best and brightest can’t possibly answer. While there are many to choose from, here are four of the critical ones to be aware of when it comes to suing someone or being sued yourself.
1. Will I Get Sued For This?
The truth is that, in the U.S., anyone can be sued by anyone else at any time for any thing. Sure, most outrageous lawsuits against you will be tossed quickly and likely with penalties for the person filing the frivolous suit, but all that it takes to file a lawsuit is someone with the interest and resources to make it happen.
If your sole concern is staying out of court and not having to spend money on legal fees, your best bet is to never upset anyone for any reason for as long as you live.
Of course, that’s pretty much impossible, so your best bet is not to avoid upsetting people, but to avoid breaking the law so that any lawsuit that does come your way frivolous and easily defeated.
You can’t ensure that you’ll never be sued, but you can make yourself almost impossible to sue successfully.
2. How Long Will Litigation Take?
When a new case starts up, there’s simply no way to know when it will end. Some cases are settled within a few weeks after being filed while others can drag on for years or decades.
There are many factors that affect how long litigation takes, How open are both sides to settlement? How complex is the case? Will a jury trial be required? Etc. Also, it’s important to note that most of litigation is about negotiation and delaying tactics are often a part of negotiation. It’s not uncommon for one side to try and drag things out to raise costs and push for a better settlement.
There’s simply no way to know how long a case will take when you start it and the best any lawyer can do is give you an idea of how long similar cases have taken in the past. However, even that information can be misleading as there are always outlier cases that drag on many times the length of what an ordinary case should have taken.
3. How Much Will it Cost?
For lawyers, time is literally money and, since there is no way to know how long a case will go on, there’s no good way to know how much it will cost.
In many cases, if your lawyer feels you have a strong enough case, he or she will take it on a contingency fee basis, meaning they will take a percentage of your winnings. However, they can’t know or promise how big those winnings will be either. Also, it’s worth noting that these fees often wind up being higher than an hourly rate since the lawyer is taking a risk.
That being said, there are some legal services that are generally provided for a flat fee (such as bankruptcy) but litigation is simply too unpredictable for that.
As with other questions on this list, your lawyer may be able to give you an idea of what similar cases have cost, but there’s no way to know what the exact total will be, especially considering that there are always outlier cases that take up far more time and money than normal.
4. Will I Win If I Go to Trial?
If your case goes to any kind of trial, there’s simply no way to guarantee that you will emerge the winner. While good evidence and good presentation can make winning a near-certainty, there’s no way to guarantee a win.
Judges and juries are unpredictable. Cases can take strange turns very suddenly, mistakes happen and nothing about litigation is completely foreseeable.
The result is that, while in a perfect world there would be no way to lose a case with the law and evidence on your side, but there are plenty of ways to do just that.
So, while you can be 99% sure that a case is going to go your way, you can never be 100% sure and you can’t be certain what you’ll receive if it does. This is why most lawyers work hard to keep their clients out of court.
Court is simply too expensive and unpredictable to be a good place for most disputes.
The problem is pretty straightforward. Your attorney is hired to represent you and your interests, but your side is less than a third of the equation in a legal dispute.
Though you can work hard to end a dispute quickly and easily, if the other side has no such interest it can be Hell trying to get even a simple matter resolved.
Your lawyer can only tell you what he or she is going to do and not how the opposing side will react, how the judge will rule or what a jury might decide. Your lawyer can only control their portion of the case and that can only steer things so much.
The best thing you can do, if you are caught up in a legal dispute is hire the best lawyer you can and trust them to represent you to the best of their abilities.
It won’t guarantee and outcome but it’s certainly better than going it alone and you, for better or worse, are facing the same uncertainties as the other side in the case.
That should provide at least some comfort when things seem to be taking forever or are going rough.
Jonathan Bailey founded and continues to write at Plagiarism Today, a site about content theft and copyright issues on the internet. He also manages CopyByte, a company that protects online content, and writes a regular column for BloggingPro.
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