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Litigation and War

By: Andrew K. Jacobson ©2004

In his autobiography, “My American Journey,” former Joint Chief of Staff Chairman General Colin L. Powell presents several tests to determine when the nation should commit to battle. These tests eventually became known as the “Powell Doctrine.” These tests are as applicable to litigation as they are to war:

  1. Commit only if vital interests are at stake.
  2. If committing, do so with all the resources necessary to win.
  3. Go in only with clear objectives.
  4. Be flexible to match the commitment to the objectives, as objectives change.
  5. Only take on commitments that have the support of those who must bear the burden.
  6. Commit forces only as a last resort.

Vital Interests. An employee has left with vital trade secrets. A former partner has left with the cash of the business. These are emergencies that demand an immediate response.

Usually, though, the threat is less clear. A former employee has left, in a hurry, but the reason for leaving is unknown. A supplier is withholding products, but there are unresolved payment issues. A customer with a clean payment history is now sixty days behind on a large bill, and phone calls are being ignored. The question of a vital interest depends on the situation. An attorney can help assess the situation and suggest solutions short of litigation.

Necessary Resources: Sticker Shock. Even well-off clients are stunned by the resources necessary for litigation. However, unlike most wars, there can be assistance. In California, the costs of some intellectual property disputes are covered under general business liability insurance policies as “advertising injury.” Some business principals may have personal liabilities covered by their home general liability insurance. Some contracts provide that one side will indemnify the other for certain actions. The first question after “what happened?” should usually be, “what insurance policies might be available to cover it?” Even if no one indemnifies you, there are other ways to curb costs.

The first is to take precautions to prevent the dispute from occurring. An attorney is most cost-effective when a relationship is being formed. Ignoring the potential for disputes merely compounds their destructive capability. Cheaper alternatives to full-blown litigation, such as mediation or arbitration, can not only lower the cost of a dispute, but also keep the relationship intact.

Attorneys can also structure contracts to lower the costs to the prevailing party when a dispute occurs. The “American” rule is that litigants pay their own attorneys’ fees. However, if parties contractually agree, the winner may get attorneys’ fees in addition to any other relief.

However, other litigation costs cannot be forgotten. Litigation requires management’s active participation. This can often require tremendous amounts of time from top executives. Employees up and down the chain have to be consulted on the facts, called to deposition, review papers, or otherwise be taken away from more profitable pursuits.

There are also intangible costs. Litigation strains relationships, especially when the combatants are formerly close associates. People caught in the middle have their loyalties sorely tested, and often respond by avoiding both sides. Nights spent worrying about the litigation are also a cost.

Specific Objectives. Deciding the objectives of litigation is often more difficult than it first seems. Crushing the opposition is a wonderful result, but rarely achieved cheaply.

Reaching an objective in litigation means knowing what is possible. Civil courts cannot put people in jail. Forcing a person back to work is very rare. Some outcomes are more likely. Preventing someone from benefitting from your labors can be achieved in the right circumstances. While courts hesitate to be proactive early, they will preserve the status quo through a preliminary injunction. Cases can quickly settle thereafter.

In most cases, only a monetary solution will work. A litigant must balance the size and prospect of the award against the costs of achieving that award. Judges and juries often take a view different from that of either litigant. My own rule is that there is never more than an 80 percent chance of winning, even for the most certain of cases.

Preparing to Change Objectives. Litigation, like war, is never static. A litigant must always be prepared to change the means and the goals. Cases are never as simple as they seem. Documents supporting the case are never found. New case law alters the field of battle. Witnesses cannot be found, or will not get involved. This is often the “fog” of war.

Good litigants are ready for these ups and downs. If the million dollar award no longer looks so certain, be prepared to take a more modest, but certain settlement offer. Alternatively, a defendant may avoid later costs and risks by making a more modest offer early on. These ups and downs are part of the ride.

Support to the End. Litigation’s initial “rush” can be invigorating. It soon wears off, replaced by slogging through document after document, tiresome demands from the opposition, and unwelcome attorney bills. Significant cases now take about eighteen months to reach a courtroom – much faster than before, but still a long time. The initial reasons for the litigation are often forgotten in the meantime. How much of eighteen months ago is still fresh in your mind?

Litigation as a Last Resort. Litigation is too expensive to be the first reaction to any crisis. Often, those interests can be served through litigation’s alternatives. Litigation should be considered only once the alternatives are ruled out.

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