Years ago I was getting ready for a monster trial – pitting the ultimate power of the United States against a little guy who held out in the face of an all out attack on his home. People died. Protestors gathered. Television cameras rolled and major magazines wrote headlines in anticipation of an almost certain end. Tanks and helicopters ferried officers and snipers about until the thing finally ended.
As the time for trial neared – nearly nine months after the siege – the question of whether we could settle the case arose. The Sage – a burley mountain man of a lawyer who was our leader – looked me square in the eyes and said it best:
"We only go to trial if we have to. If we can settle any case and walk away with our heads up, that’s what we do."
To win your case at trial you have to know if it can be won. Then again – what is winning?
If you are charged with aggravated assault with a deadly weapon (pointing a gun at someone, a felony) and the government offers to accept a plea to simple assault (a misdemeanor), should you go to trial? I suppose it depends on your tolerance for the pain of a possible felony conviction. Sometimes you know that what you did went too far, and you can swallow a little crow and pay a small price to avoid the possibility of a felony conviction. Sometimes you can’t. And sometimes the government makes that decision for you – they refuse to negotiate and settle.
Then you try your case.
Here’s the starting point: is there an alternative to trial?
Last summer we prepared for a wrongful death trial in Wyoming. Our clients had lost their son while he was skiing at a well-known ski resort. This was the second such case we had handled against that resort in the past five years or so. In each case, the lawyers were the same, the decision-makers were the same, even the experts were the same. Two lives lost. Families destroyed. The ski industry almost never settles until you are almost at trial. They spend money defending their industry, even in the face of an unnecessary death.
The case settled just a few weeks before the trial was to start. Why? Because each side understood the risk of going to trial. We all knew that juries are impossible to predict, regardless of how many mock trials or focus groups are done. And we did not have to try the case to win.
Our clients had already lost their son. They wanted a resolution that mostly included an acknowledgement of their loss and the defendants’ partial responsibility. A mediated settlement achieved that solution.
If you have a case – civil or criminal – and a trial is your only way out, by all means, go and fight and do everything you can to "win." But after 31 years in the courts, I can tall you the Sage is right. If there is another solution, explore that option first.
Think you have a civil case? Wrongful death? Personal injury? Wrongful discharge? Or a criminal matter? Maybe we can help you win – whether you go to court or not.