A few weeks ago a Boston lawyer named David Hoffman published an article in the Boston Globe entitled “Saying Goodbye to the Courtroom.” Mr. Hoffman explains why he has decided, after 31 years as a trial lawyer, to “walk away from litigation.” He writes about his “disgruntlement over the costs, delays, and the sheer unpredictability of courtroom battle.” Instead of going to court, he has decided to pursue “peacemaking as my full-time job.”
Hoffman asks whether going to court helps make the world a better place. I know from experience that often it does not, but I also know that sometimes it does, even if the case is “only” about money. I remember a case in which a small businessman defrauded a national company, and the jury found in favor of the big company. In another case, a large company cheated a small one, and the jury found for the small company. In both instances, the system levelled the playing field, validating our belief in equal justice for both the rich and the poor.
No experienced trial lawyer would ever recommend taking the long and difficult road to the courthouse without telling the client what lies ahead. A settlement offers many benefits, among which are certainty and an end to the financial cost and emotional turmoil. However, as someone who has been a courtroom lawyer for a long time, I still believe that the litigation process frequently provides benefits that are not available when the parties settle out of court. One thing you can’t get if you settle is your “day in court,” and sometimes, people simply need a public place where they can stand up and be heard. Of course it feels a lot better if you win, but the process can provide emotional relief, sometimes called a “catharsis,” even if you lose.
Trials are an integral part of the rule of law. The judicial system is supposed to be a search for truth, and when it works, which in my experience it does more often than not, it does exactly that. Juries have a way of figuring out which party has the better claim to the truth. The same can be said for most judges. And when this happens, we re-affirm that the neutrality of the courts is part of our democracy. The process is enshrined in the bill of rights and in the state constitution, and we can only honor it if we continue to practice it.
Above all, the courtroom serves as the place where important human rights and values can be vindicated. In one of his famous speeches, Martin Luther King., Jr. said, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”
We have seen many examples of this in recent times, cases where women, minorities, gays and lesbians, people suffering from disabilities or mental illness, and others have put their faith in the judicial system. They were not suing for peace, they were suing for justice. Unlike settlements, which are often shrouded by confidentiality agreements, such cases serve society as a whole, not just the interests of the participants.
I’m all for peacemaking, but I’m not saying good-bye to the courtroom just yet. Sometimes the right choice is to do battle.
** This article was originally published in the Monadnock Ledger Transcript.