What all law has in common

It can often seem like law is a collection of different specialities that never talk to each other. Ask a family law attorney what the possible consequences are when a spouse accuses you of drug use, and he probably won't have anything to say about criminal charges. Similarly, asking your start-up attorney about an impending divorce might get you a referral or just a blank look, even though divorces can drastically effect privately-held companies with little outside investment. 

To a degree this is warranted. Different fields of law each involve specialized knowledge, and it can take time to learn. A great example is Intellectual Property law, known in the trade as IP. IP is a relatively young field, and it generates reams of new rules, laws, and decisions every week. It's a lot to keep up on, and for a start-up, IP is everything. Similarly, family law can get extremely complex when you have, for example, an untraditional family that got together in a state that, say, doesn't recognize gay marriage, or a foreign country. 

However, in our opinion, most firms oversell the virtues of specialization. It is important to know how a certain field works, and we have the knowledge and experience to do that, but most law suits actually have a lot in common, and those common elements are what occupy most lawyers, most of the time. 

These common factors are probably easy to guess. Negotiation is a huge part of any case that's being run properly, and negotiating retention of code based on open-source gem files is actually pretty similar to negotiating child support increases, or a plea bargain, or a discretionary expungement. In technical terms we call these issues isomorphic, but in common parlance, we say that they're all pretty much the same. Of course most lawyers avoid the common parlance, so that this won't be obvious. 

A related skill is reading people and knowing when to flex or when to fight. Consider an eviction case: some tenants are willing to agree to a move-out date that the court can enforce, but some are devoted to fighting to the very end. If you get a firm that always wants to negotiate, or always fights, you'll waste a lot of time and money. Getting a firm that knows how to tell the difference saves everyone a lot of grief, and honestly, it's not that hard. We try to make a point of hiring lawyers who've done customer service work in the past, because anyone who's waited tables knows how to spot someone who's a little upset about a small issue, as opposed to someone spoiling for a fight. This isn't a complicated skill, and we're not sure why so many lawyers seem to lose it during law school. 

Last but certainly not least, no lawyer will be effective unless she knows exactly what her client's goals are, and how much time and money the client is willing to spend to get there. This seems basic, but ask around. Many people who've had lawyers before feel like their lawyer never really listened to them, and didn't know what they wanted. We find this especially common in family law, and it's distressing. Your lawyer needs to be someone you trust, and someone who understands exactly what you're trying to get. Otherwise how can she help you get it? 

We realize these fit into the fuzzy category of 'people skills,' but we think that there's no reason to be soft about these. In our opinion, they're critical legal skills, and a lawyer who doesn't have them can be easily spotted. There's no reason to settle for someone who can't put their legal knowledge to use for you, and your results will almost always be better with a lawyer smart enough to use the right strategy. Particularly if you've had bad experiences with a lawyer before, we urge you to give us a shot, and see if we can impress you. 


Deciding whether to accept an offer

Every case involves some element of negotiation. 

Regardless of the case, or even the field of law, there will come a point at which you have the option to settle, or keep fighting. In family law, there's always an offer that covers custody and financials, in evictions there's usually an offer to move out in X months, with or without a payment, and in criminal law it's the ever-present plea bargain. Start-up law, actually, involves a lot of offers of settlement, though they're not always obvious to the non-lawyer. This post addresses some of the factors you should consider in deciding whether or not to accept a given offer, regardless of what kind of case you have. 

Do the math first. 

Most cases involve a lot of raw emotion, and it can be very difficult to see past that when a settlement offer comes in. You will probably feel insulted, because a settlement offer never contains everything you think you should get. I advise clients to actually sit down and do a quick calculation: How much will it cost you to keep fighting, versus how much do you lose in the settlement? Often having a case finished with is worth it, and if you do elect to keep fighting, you want to know about how much that's going to cost. 

For example, in a landlord/tenant case, an offer of settlement from the tenant might ask for 3 months to move out, and a payment of $500. The landlord should calculate what three months' rent for the property comes to, and get an estimate for the lawyer time involved in actually going to trial. Most eviction firms, we find, attract clients with low rates to get started and then ask for literally thousands of dollars to cover a simple residential eviction trial. If your legal costs are going to be that high, then you'd be well advised to take the offer, even if you strongly dislike the client. 

Notably, this is an area where I feel Verbeck Law does a much better job than many firms. Our flat-fee structures allow us to give you a final number, not a low-ball estimate, and so you can make the decision without worrying about a large, surprising bill later.The above question is a lot easier to resolve if you know that your case will cost $800, start to finish, with no giant surcharge for trial. 

Ask if you can do better. 

This is where your attorney's specialized knowledge and experience can help you. How strong is the other party's case, really? How strong is their negotiating position? A counter-offer is generally a good idea, and an attorney with excellent negotiating skills can more than pay for her services here. Consider a divorce case with a house and a retirement account in play. An offer of 1/2 the house and 1/3 of the account might come to a million five, and a counter-offer might be 1/2 of both. If this is accepted, the attorney has just saved you a few hundred thousand dollars. An attorney who isn't good at negotiation may not be able to improve your offer, and this can cost you a lot more than the attorney's fee. 

Make sure it can be enforced. 

This is a big one that's often overlooked. Some 'deals' aren't worth much until they're written down, and in some cases, not even then. For example, in start-up law, a deal in which your company retains a star programmer can be very exciting, but remember, the court can't order someone to perform a services contract if they don't want to. If your programmer gets mad and bails, you can't force him or her to keep working for you, and there are a lot of difficulties in proving damages in this sort of case. Your lawyer should address with you what happens if the other party doesn't abide by their agreement. There are also often ways to make deals more enforceable, and to shorten the amount of time you'll need to enforce a deal that isn't kept. 

At Verbeck Law, we approach all negotiations with vigor, and we feel like negotiation skills are just as important as legal skill. Most likely, you won't spend most of your case time in court, you'll spend it arguing with the other party. Knowing what to look for, and what to ask for, can save you a lot of time and money. We hope that you'll think of running your matter by us, a firm that actively practices excellent negotiation, but whoever you go with, keep these tips in mind.