[Ed. note: The first part of this post was drafted on 7/15, the second half on 7/16.]
Lately, I've been having a crisis of my lawyer faith. Over the last few weeks, I've seen some very bad people get away with taking advantage of good people because their lawyer said, "So what?", or the amount in controversy was just too small to justify the fight, or because the bad guys had more money than the good guys, so the good guys had to stop fighting. This wouldn't be so bad, except that this is happening in just about every case I've seen (not just the ones I've been involved in). The disparity between justice and the outcome has been too great to give me any satisfaction in my job.
I learned very soon after starting my career that our justice system is not actually about justice; it's about dispute resolution. We need to achieve finality in the disputes between our citizens, otherwise disputes will be resolved through other means (Two men enter, one man leaves), and our notion of civilization breaks down. By allowing third parties to resolve our problems, we avoid all of that entertaining violence and bloodshed, and replace it with entertaining shows about lawyers and police.
Rather than rely on third-party dispute resolvers to hand out arbitrary decisions (think "arbiter"), we attempt to bring some order to this system by writing laws and rules about how we address our disputes. We try to fashion those rules such that when properly applied, disputes are resolved and "just" results are reached. Our laws and rules actually only approximate justice.
This common misconception that our justice system is actually about justice has caused me a great deal of problems over my lengthy career as an attorney. (Yes, one year is lengthy.) My clients come to me expecting me to help them obtain justice, but are always disappointed when justice is not reached in their case. Even if they win, they always turn to me and ask, "How can they do that? How can they get away with X injustice?" I have to explain to them that our laws are not about justice, but about finality. They then become upset because they spent a huge amount of money on a fight that ultimately did not get them the result they thought they deserved. Herein lies the problem. Because our system openly claims to be about justice, it creates an expectation in people that justice will be met. People go to court thinking that their plight is one deserving of some redress, when in reality, imperfect lawyers make imperfect arguments to imperfect judges who issue imperfect decisions which are typically more about finality than justice. The unfortunate term "splitting the baby" (referring to wise King Solomon) is thrown around a lot to describe the most common outcome in cases: that each party walk away with equal blame and equal responsibility.
After wrestling with the above question all night last night, I finally pinned it and demanded an epiphany, which it reluctantly provided. This morning, I realized that I don't have to get justice for my clients every time. This is an imperfect system and it's unrealistic to expect it to dole out justice. Rather, it's more realistic to hope that I'll see justice just some of the time. I've arbitrarily picked 10% as a reasonable goal. If I can see justice in 1 out of 10 cases, I'll be happy.
I shared this idea with a wise older lawyer in my office, who explained that not only is the system imperfect, but our clients are as well. (He described them as "dumb".) No client goes into a dispute without having made any mistakes, and it's just for them to have to account for those mistakes. Therefore, if I settle a case where the good guy pays the bad guy some money, then that may be "just" because of the failure of the good guy to adequately protect himself. If I start out every representation explaining to the client that they've made mistakes, I'll lower their expectations and not get yelled at as much when I don't get them the results they want.
Finally, Mrs. Jerkface explained to me that in the end, even if I'm not getting results for my clients, I am paying the bills, and that ought to count for something. She's right; I'd just like to feel like I'm not participating in a farcical system where people are given an expectation of justice, only to have that expectation shattered when they are hit with the harsh reality of finality.
And I'd like to win more.