Serious misconceptions about the legal system are among the hidden stressors that impose a high cost on people and their workplace. The stressors arise in workers’ lives away from the job, but come to the job with them. What happens outside takes a hefty toll inside. Every manager grappling with human resource issues, or trying to administer benefits programs, deals with such problems daily.
Hardly any of the external stressors is more intense than those that lay siege to an employee involved in litigation. A marriage hits the rocks, and negotiations over everything from child custody to division of property to alimony to debt responsibility shoves the employee into an emotionally tough court battle. A worker’s teenager wrecks the family car while speeding, injuring the driver of another car, and the employee begins the arduous trek through the legal system. The list of crises could go on and on.
The employee arrives at work daily ignited with tension, and works hard to control it. But a supervisor notices the symptoms of presenteeism. The worker is physically present, going about job functions mechanically and usually inadequately because the person is not mentally or emotionally focused on the job. Another member of the team is unusually irritable, and sets off an earthquake of conflict that threatens the operations of the entire department.
Often the employee’s stress is brought about because the worker has had a startling collision with reality. The gap between expectations and actuality suddenly looms in front of the person. This is especially true for employees going through the swamp of a legal issue.
The price we pay
Because of naiveté, many people snared in litigation begin with an expectation in which they tell themselves, “I will be able to recover most of my costs if I win my lawsuit.” Many arrive at naïve expectations because they are unfamiliar with how the American legal system works. They have little or no knowledge regarding the high cost of lawyers, and the repeated delays that often cause legal fees to skyrocket.
The expectation of recovering costs is shattered when the employee involved in a legal issue realizes the high cost of attorneys actually grows into a roadblock on the (hoped for) journey to victory. Further, there is the shock of discovering that in most cases each party pays its own legal expenses. Rather than genuine resolution and justice, the huge price of representation often drives an employee to compromise and settle the case. The frustration and sense of defeat stays with an individual a long time, traveling with him or her everywhere, including—and often especially—the workplace.
People involved in litigation find themselves sinking in the quicksand of mind-bending court procedures, and in the even more surprising costs that pop up. In fact, one of the heftiest obstacles is the anxiety that those incomprehensible court rules will cost the litigant. The reason is that lengthy procedural steps in the legal system have the effect of increasing the cost of an attorney’s time.
One of the most frequent complaints about the court system—especially when contrasted with mediation—is the entire lawsuit takes so long to get from start to conclusion, driving attorney fees upward.
Most people don’t have a “rainy day lawyer fund.” Employees pulled into the courts are forced to use savings, borrow money, or worse, tap their retirement funds when legal problems suddenly burden them. For the first time perhaps, they have to face thorny issues like “time billing.” Time, along with expertise, personal relationships with judges, and other non-tangible services all go into the client’s bill.
A legal case study
Wilma is an employee of XYZ Corporation. She had employed a caregiver to stay with her mother, who is suffering from dementia. Wilma was careful, and wrote out her expectations for the caregiver. She and the sitter both signed the document, and Wilma breathed easier, believing the caregiver would honor its terms. But soon, Wilma discovered the sitter was watching television all day, not caring for her mother. She fired her, and a few weeks later, Wilma was served with a lawsuit. The caregiver accused her of violating their agreement.
Wilma hired a lawyer, and stepped into the frightening world of the court system. Already staggering under the legal bills, Wilma found the price constantly going up. In court she would hear a continual stream of legalese. She knew the technical court garble had important implications for her case, but understood little of it. Wilma would phone her attorney for a 15-minute discussion for clarification, then see her lawyer bill increase by the quarter-hour she had assumed would be informal conversation. The more explanation she needed, the higher her bill.
Wilma’s boss would sometimes see her tucked in the corner of her work station on a phone call, and then running to the restroom in tears. Wilma had been a top performer, but the constant anxiety over mounting bills was wearing her down. The very work she desperately needed to get done to keep the paycheck coming in that paid those legal fees began to suffer.
Multiply the “Wilmas” across the corporate landscape and you begin to get a feel for the enormity of the problem. For many, depression settles on them like a heavy fog, and they begin to miss work. Rising stress in an employee increases health care costs. As an employee entangled in the legal system is consumed with “what ifs?,” they lose concentration and mistakes mount, sometimes to catastrophic levels. Imagine, for example, a forklift driver preoccupied with the fear of losing a child to a drunken or abusive spouse through court action, and you can see the enormity of the problem.
The first misconception regarding the legal system is related to attorney and legal fees. The second is perhaps even more disturbing to the employee caught up in a legal conflict. The second misconception is the assumption that the winner in a court battle will always recover his or costs.
While this may seem unfair to many, to most employees the huge cost of lawyers not only creates, but exponentially increases, the high degree of frustration, dissatisfaction, stress, anger and emotional upset inherent in the financial or legal problem. After all, the offending party has already usually cost them a large amount of money—the reason they sued in the first place—and now they have to spend more large amounts to pay for the lawyers to try to recover the loss. Employees routinely report that delay and the resulting expenses exceed fairness and create an enormous amount of hostility and anger which is routinely brought into the workplace.
A third misconception regarding the legal system that brings stress to employees tangling with it is the lack of understanding of the litigation process, coupled with not having a counselor to help the employee comprehend what will happen in his or her case.
Your employee entering the legal system for the first time will likely have the assumption that causes him to say to himself, “I’m sure my case will be as important to the court as it is to me.”
But eventually the worker runs into the unyielding wall of reality: The court system has a substantial number of cases and often a serious backlog, and each case receives only a limited court time.
A serious matter
The stringent requirements, rules and procedures of the American legal system convey an extraordinary seriousness, and create much fear and apprehension among employees engaged with it. Rarely would someone imagine themselves in a courtroom, yet legal problems, arrests and related issues can arise at the most unexpected times and in the most unexpected circumstances. They are not limited to major criminals.
Most every court case is serious, but we really only think about the legal system when we’re involved in it. And when we do become aware of the legal system, we tend to believe our own case is the “most serious.” This often becomes a problem for employees or managers, because there’s potential for serious consequences, but their case may not be as important to the court system as they think it is. Most employees run into this issue the first time they have to go to court, slowly realizing they wait all day for the judge to call their case. Employees often do not understand that the court may consider other cases to be much more serious. Additionally, a court may deal with 25 cases or more a day.
Realizing one’s own case is only one of many others has a detrimental effect on many clients. They grasp that their attorney has other equally important clients, meaning the individual’s own case is not getting the attention the client assumed it would. The result is more frustration, and perhaps even anger. The employee’s stress goes beyond the intensity that thrust the person into the legal system in the first place.
Couple this with the idea that most clients believe they can simply go to court, tell their story, and the judge will agree with them. However, once involved the employee begins to see that their underlying financial or legal problem is not being resolved quickly and the lawsuit is not bringing quick resolution.
Closely linked to the misconception that the employee’s case will be the court’s highest priority is the wrong assumption that there will be counselors to help the worker not only through the legal system, but also in wrestling with the mental distress it brings. The reality is lawyers are not counselors equipped to handle the emotional stress brought on by legal conflict.
One of the most difficult facts to understand is how difficult it can be to work with an attorney. And one of the most misunderstood issues is client expectations versus legal system realities. The way many clients view attorneys is among the most troubling areas of misunderstanding that leads to increased frustration, anger and a feeling that the client is completely alone in the legal system.
Most clients expect their attorney to act like a counselor, a consultant and even a psychologist. Clients often want every detail explained, especially those workers accustomed to their health or dental plan benefits being explained in much detail. Employees feel they need their attorneys to spend more time with them to give them details about the legal system. Most are not nearly as familiar with how lawyers work as they are with doctors or dentists.
The problem is that attorneys are trained to be “advocates” in and out of court. However, the employee often misses this meaning. An attorney does not “advocate” to his/her client, but to the judge and to the other side’s attorney. Overwhelmingly, clients do not understand this distinction. It becomes quickly important as clients realize their own attorney does not take much time to explain what the client feels is vital detail, or spend much time talking to clients during the case—either in court or out of court.
Clients also quickly realize an attorney may not be adept at counseling or with the psychology of the legal battle from the employee perspective. Clients also apprehend that many attorneys do not foster or cultivate that “warm and fuzzy” counseling aura. Many become disappointed when the attorney seems to be fact-oriented, disinterested, or unemotional about the opponents in the litigation, and in some situations is actually dismissive when it comes to the conclusion of their court matter for the day. This dismissive nature can often be a real problem for the client who expects everyone will see the magnitude of his or her legal problem. Many clients certainly expect their own attorney—to whom they are usually paying large amounts of money—to be absolutely devoted to their legal matter and totally committed to the “wrongness” of the opposing party. However, the sheer complexity, style and methodology of the American court system bring litigant’s expectations crashing down. Not only does the collision with reality impact the worker, but the workplace, and the company of which it is a part.
Legal access plans can go a long way in dealing positively with the tensions brought on by misconceptions and their negative impact on employees and their businesses. Such plans are preventative, in that they help soften the blow that comes in the collision of misconception and reality. Future articles in this series will explore solutions that can address the costly consequences for employees involved in litigation, and their companies.