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10 Tips for Staying Sane in Court

by Steve Elias
Copyright © 1993 Nolo Press

  1. Don't Count on Winning
  2. Don't Take Your Rights Too Seriously
  3. Court Is the Wrong Place for Revenge
  4. Mediate, Don't Litigate
  5. Don't Gamble More Than You Can Stand to Lose
  6. Take Control of Your Case
  7. Control Costs
  8. Remember That You Pay the Court Personnel
  9. Keep a Sense of Humor
  10. Get a Little Help From Your Friends

Going to court initially evokes strong emotions: anxiety if you're the one being sued and hope if you're the one bringing the case. But once the battle is joined, the court experience commonly gives rise to another set of emotions -- rage and depression.

Here are ten tips to help you avoid these states of mind.

1. Don't Count on Winning

In disputes taken to court, there is a common belief that there should be a winner and a loser. That occasionally happens, but more often, especially when money is involved, the attorney fees and other costs of litigation eat up whatever award is given to the winning side and both sides commonly end up out of pocket. Only the attorneys come out ahead.

2. Don't Take Your Rights Too Seriously

Our culture makes us believe that we have rights and that every violation of a right potentially involves a jackpot award. Unfortunately, this means that if you are unsuccessful in vindicating your right in court by getting a judgment against the other side, you feel doubly betrayed by the system. And yet, it is often the case that nothing bad occurred except that you lost a case that you had trumped yourself up to believe that you had the right to win.

It is far better to view rights as goals or aspirations and not as concrete predictors of what will happen if you try to vindicate them in a courtroom. Remember the Spanish Gypsy Curse: "May you be involved in a lawsuit in which you know you are right."

3. Court Is the Wrong Place for Revenge

If you want to go to court to punish someone for what they have done, remember that it is equally likely that you will end up being the one punished. As the old saying goes, "If you seek revenge, first dig two graves."

4. Mediate, Don't Litigate

Litigation is trial by combat. Mediation, on the other hand, is a healing process. It focuses more on equitable solutions and what both sides of the dispute require to get on with their lives and less on abstract legal rights or principles of justice. Get away from the idea that you should win and the other side should lose. Accept that disputes almost always have a point of resolution that allows both sides to come away with their minimum needs met.

5. Don't Gamble More Than You Can Stand to Lose

If you can't settle the dispute, remember that litigation is an arbitrary process over which you have very little control -- and that undertaking litigation is always a gamble. First decide on how much you're willing to risk -- in dollars, time and peace of mind -- before you start playing. If you do decide to litigate, be prepared to lose and remember that possibility throughout the process.

6. Take Control of Your Case

If you still decide to go to court, the best way to ease your stress is to remember that it's your case and that you have the right to control it.

Only hire a lawyer who is willing to help you acquire the information necessary to make intelligent decisions as they come up. There usually is no such thing as legal strategy. Virtually all decisions in the course of a lawsuit require only common sense -- and are decisions that you can make more soundly than any lawyer you might hire. Taking charge of your case rather than acting as a passive lump of clay can help brighten your mental outlook at once.

7. Control Costs

Part of keeping control of your case is controlling the costs. There are expensive ways to litigate -- and much less expensive ways. Whenever a lawyer suggests a particular procedure, do a cost-benefit analysis. Often, the likely results of the procedure are not worth the cost, but only you can make that decision. Keep in mind that lawyers, like doctors, often suggest various procedures solely to avoid malpractice charges.

8. Remember That You Pay the Court Personnel

If you handle your own case in court, the clerks and the judge may treat you as a visitor to their country who ought to either be fluent in their language -- Legalese -- or get a lawyer to interpret for you. This, of course, is wrong-headed. Since you pay the salaries of the court personnel, it is they who should accommodate your needs. The best way to deal with recalcitrant judges and clerks is to calmly persist until you get what you want. Don't feel like there is something wrong with you because you insist on understanding what goes on in the courthouse.

9. Keep a Sense of Humor

If you see yourself heading for court, consider reading some of Nolo's lighter books, such as its collection of lawyer jokes, or Devil's Advocates, Poetic Justice or 29 Reasons Not to Go to Law School. They will highlight the zaniness of what you are likely to encounter in the legal system. And the more prepared you are to laugh, the easier it will be to get through the process.

10. Get a Little Help From Your Friends

Select a couple friends to help you make decisions. Make sure they promise to evaluate your situation objectively rather than offer bald support. You need honest feedback from them, not sympathetic agreement.

Identify a different support group for sympathy. Make sure you that you share your emotions with these people rather than keeping them bottled up.

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The selected articles originally appeared in the Nolo News and are Copyright © Nolo Press 1996 and reproduced here with permission. If you find them of value, we encourage you to visit Nolo Press at their web site http://www.nolo.com. If you wish to post them on-line or otherwise distribute them, first read Nolo's copyright policy.

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