It was Monday morning in Media, Delaware County, Pennsylvania. The daily “list” of special relief petitions had almost thirty matters on it for disposition. The good news was that ten of them had either been withdrawn or “continued” to a later date. The bad news was that an unscheduled “emergency” would mean that the judge would be delayed by an hour in ascending the bench to hear the twenty matters left for disposition.
My matter had evolved into a dispute over $60,000 in interim distributions. But in Courts, matters do not proceed in order of the amount in controversy. Often there is no rhyme or reason in what order matters are heard. Judges prefer to dispose of any settled matters first because it lessens the list. Some will take the cases in the order on the list. Others will ask how long the parties will take to present their cases and proceed first with those matters requiring the least amount of time.
Sit in any courtroom in Pennsylvania and you will obtain an education. You will see lawyers and their clients fight over matters of great magnitude. Others will grapple over the ridiculous and then move on to the sublime.
In court today and ahead of my matter were two lawyers whom I respect. Alas, the fight of the day did not warrant their level of skill. The dispute? How an affluent couple would divide their summer cottage between them for the season ahead. By the time the Court reached them on the list each client had an investment of $ 1,500 in legal fees.
Great news for the lawyers, right? Really, no. All but the greediest of attorneys would have happily avoided this morning of watching and waiting for their fifteen minutes of fame. This is what lawyers term a “power fight”. It rarely has to do with the merits of the summer schedule. Take each party aside and ask them why they are there and the answer is: “He/She has pushed me around enough.
I want my six weeks this summer when I want it. I have been dictated to enough.”
We have previously written that there are times when “principle” warrants a courtroom battle. This is not one of them. There is very little principle attached to whether husband or wife gets the last week of August or the fourth of July. Certainly, even wealthy people will not be happy to see their invoice for May legal services include $2,000 for the battle for Independence Day. One other thing. Rarely does any litigant win a clear victory in these battles. Compromise is what judges do except where they perceive huge injustice.
So what needed to happen? As we stood in the back of the Court waiting for the proceedings to begin, the comment was made that almost any lawyer in the Courtroom could have resolved the controversy fairly in 10-15 minutes after hearing both sides out. The parties did not need a jurist to decide this matter. They just needed someone neutral who would hear both sides out and make the decision. Instead, the parties sat for three hours waiting for the judge to reach them. When he did, the job was done and fairly. But lawyers sat and client’s paid for hours of waiting.
We have previously suggested that in a world of expensive legal services clients should pick their legal fights carefully. If the dispute does not require specialized skill but only a brief argument and a prompt disposition ask your lawyer whether you and your spouse can appoint someone to dispose of it quickly. Chances are you will pay that person. But that will get you a result and your neutral will put you to the head of the line.