GPSOLO January/February 2009
Big Victories, Big Losses
The case has been researched for hours; there have been countless interviews of all the witnesses; the evidence and facts to support the theories have been gathered; many questions to be posed and answered have been thought about; and practically every resource has been used to ensure the win. It’s a shame that no one will be getting paid the big bucks from this case and be able to retire to the beach, but this is the life of most solos and small firm practitioners. With few clients to choose from, the chance of ever getting that multi- million-dollar verdict is slim to none. Indeed, sole practitioners often do not base their sense of victory or loss solely on money—although they certainly want to be paid—but on whether they have helped the client. Take a look at the following big victories and big losses that illustrate the point.
The Big Loss
Maurice and Jack had been friends since childhood. They had gone to the same high school and lived in the same neighborhood in their small town in Alabama. Both, coincidentally, ended up dating the same woman. Maurice worked as a policeman; Jack was a day laborer. Both were honest, hardworking individuals, but they were easily swayed by their strong emotions for this woman.
One night, while Jack was hanging out with friends and Maurice was on patrol, the two saw each other. By this time the animosity had grown between the two over the woman. Maurice stopped and asked Jack and his friends to disperse. This would have been a reasonable request if Maurice’s motives had been forthright. Instead, Maurice simply wanted to demonstrate that he had power over Jack. A heated argument ensued between the two men, as well as a minor tussle—hardly enough to qualify as an assault, but Jack found himself arrested both for failure to obey a police officer and for assaulting a police officer, a felony in Alabama. Jack was convicted of both charges.
This was a big loss because the case should never even have come to trial.
With different people and different circumstances, a felony conviction would have been warranted. Here, however, there were mitigating circumstances, particularly the relationship with the woman, that the judge would not allow the jury to hear. Jack has been tarnished for life with a felony conviction. In Alabama convicted felons lose many rights, including the right to vote, and these rights are not automatically restored upon the completion of the sentence and payment of the fines.
Big Victory #1
After years of a tumultuous and sometimes tempestuous off-again, on-again relationship with his common-law wife (Alabama recognizes common-law marriage), Jim came home one night and found his wife’s boyfriend in his trailer home. The two men had had several run-ins with each other through the years. In fact, the boyfriend had recently threatened to kill the husband. Because of the likelihood of this threat becoming a reality, the husband had purchased a gun.
Tonight, when the husband came back from playing cards and drinking beer with friends and relatives to find the boyfriend in the trailer home he shared with his wife and children, he asked the boyfriend to leave. He asked a second time, but to no avail. Finally, with his gun in tow, the husband headed to his bedroom to call the police, still hoping that the boyfriend would leave. Before he could make it to the bedroom, however, the boyfriend lunged at the husband with a shiny object (it was later determined to be a knife), and the husband pulled his gun and fired six times; two of the bullets struck and killed the boyfriend. For whatever reason, the district attorney insisted that this was a murder case rather than manslaughter and would not accept a plea for anything less. Thus, the case ended up going to trial.
The husband accepted responsibility for the death and would have pleaded to manslaughter in a heartbeat. The district attorney, on the other hand, was sure that he could get a murder conviction and insisted on a trial. The defendant’s attorney, after years of trying cases of this sort, realized that this could go three ways: guilty of murder, guilty of manslaughter, or not guilty. Luckily, the jury saw it for what it was: manslaughter. This, then, was a big victory because it was the right verdict and, in actuality, the only acceptable verdict given the facts.
Big Victory #2
Jane came into the office crying hysterically because her insurance company would not pay for her car loss after an accident that she believed to be the fault of another driver. That driver’s insurance company found no fault.
Mind you, the car’s blue book value in good condition for the car was only $2,500. However, the car was of great importance in Jane’s life. She used it to run errands, take the children to school, and most importantly, as her transportation to her job. She only had liability coverage; it was all she could afford.
The case ended up in the district court’s small claims division. There were only two witnesses—Jane and the other driver—and each had a very different story. Jane said that she had the green light; the other driver claimed that he had the green light. As a result, it was left to the judge to decide. The evidence showed that Jane’s car was struck on the left rear panel, close to bumper. Further, as the police report indicated and both parties testified to, Jane was almost in the middle of the intersection, under the traffic light when she was struck. This was a four-lane street, and hence there was an entire lane available for the other driver to avoid hitting Jane’s car. After hearing the testimony, the judge took the matter under advisement. Jane said she was going home to pray for a victory. Two days later, the judge issued his order: Jane won. She was awarded $4,000, a sum larger than she requested and enough to buy another car to run errands, take the children to school, and get her to work. This was a big victory both for Jane and for the sole practitioner who had represented her.
As these illustrations indicate, big victories and big losses are not measured by their monetary value alone. Surely, every lawyer wants to earn that big paycheck. But in the end, sole practitioners realize that victories and losses are measured more clearly by how much the client has been helped.
Jeffrey C. Robinson operates a solo practice in Selma, Alabama, focusing on criminal defense, family law, bankruptcy, Social Security, and property law. He may be reached at email@example.com.