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Know When, Where to Draw the Line

Fight or settle. That is a question lawyers face nearly every day. They help their clients decide when to fight, when to settle and when to run and hide.

Whenever a lawsuit is filed, it usually is because someone feels cheated, upset, lied to, annoyed, hurt, taken advantage of, or sees an opportunity to have someone else pay for his pain. And if you happen to be the person who is sued, you’ll probably feel cheated, upset, lied to, annoyed, hurt or taken advantage of.

First Inclination

Your first inclination as a defendant may be to stand and fight. Your first objective as a plaintiff may be to win all that you think you deserve. But, now is the time to consider settlement of the suit. And settlement is something you should keep in mind throughout the legal ordeal.

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Litigation is expensive. It is time consuming. It is demanding on the soul. It can be downright depressing. Sitting for hours in a deposition while hostile attorneys ask you about skeletons in your closet is not my idea of fun. Even trying to reach your own attorney on the telephone can be a frustrating challenge.

So before you get caught up in the litigation game, it is a good idea to assess your own motives and expectations in connection with any lawsuit with your name on it.

If you are suing, you should know what you want, how long it may take to get it, and how much it may cost. Then you need to decide how much you might be willing to take, if you can’t get everything you want. (Before you sue in the first place, of course, you should make sure that the person or company sued has the wherewithal to pay if you win.)

Nusiance Fee

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If you are being sued, you should decide how much you would be willing to pay, even if it is just a nuisance fee to avoid the hassle of defending a lawsuit. Evaluate the strength of your defense. And if you think you might lose big, now is the time to make a reasonable settlement offer, before the other side incurs heavy legal expenses.

If this all sounds as if I am only talking about money, you’re right. Most routine legal claims are resolved one way or another by an exchange of dollars. Of course, there are many important lawsuits that bring about significant improvement in the way government or corporations conduct business.

Other suits seek to enforce constitutional rights or end discrimination. However, settlement is usually a possibility even in such suits. But what I’m talking about here is the more routine consumer or business legal case.

If settlement is viable, don’t be afraid to be the first one to speak up. It does not mean you will be perceived as having a weak case. Most lawyers and litigants know that settlement is just another way of doing legal business.

But don’t make your first offer your last offer. Be prepared to bargain. The other side will expect it, and they won’t believe you if you say, “This is my first and final offer--take it or leave it.”

The reverse is also true. Don’t accept the first offer given. Ask for more. Be reasonable, but if you accept the first offer, you’ve probably left money on the table.

On the other hand, don’t be greedy.

The advice of New York Judge Bertram Harnett in his book “Put the Law on Your Side” is worth repeating: Those who “let settlement get away over a few dollars are shortsighted. Small differences in money or conduct can and should be bridged with patience and good humor. Never try to squeeze out the last dollar.”

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