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You Don't Need No Stinking Lawyer! Or Do You?

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A Guide to Fighting Your Own Battles


  1. Do not react out of emotion.
  2. Investigate the facts and learn the other side’s position.
  3. Make sure you intimately understand the process and accept it.
  4. Assemble the facts that support your position.
  5. Write a letter outlining your position. (1) The first part of the letter is your request. Right up front, state what you want. Be as specific as possible. Dollar figures, time frames, etc. are all critical. Do not be vague. Let them know where the goal line is that you are inching toward; this lets your adversary do the same in his own mind. (2) The second part of your letter is a recitation of the operant facts, organizing those facts to support your point of view. (3) The third part of your letter is an argument citing to authority. The best authority is usually the rules of the game the other side has for dealing with the subject of the dispute. If it is an employment issue, it is the employer’s Employee Manual. If it is a dispute with your cell phone provider, the Cell Phone contract would be an excellent set of rules to use. Maybe you have a dispute with a family member; well, each family usually belongs to a culture and usually abides by a set of rules it has adopted (the rules of the Catholic church, or the rules of fair play, etc.). If it is a dispute with a figure of authority (the police, the IRS, or State Government), you should reference their rules. Arguing that you are entitled to relief under the rules is a necessary first step, and utilizes the element of logos. (4) The fourth of your letter is to appeal to the better parts of human nature. You may always use the tools of pathos and ethos to buttress your primary or logical argument, and you should. They are far more powerful and more authoritative, in most cases, than your primary argument. Pathos or passion is the empathetic argument or passionate argument. Suppose an athlete has worked 10 years to get a title bout and is denied his shot. Suppose a woman owes the IRS $10,000, but she is a widow working two jobs, and is a single mother supporting a little girl, and the little girl needs braces. Suppose a man stands accused of a crime, say criminal mischief, but he is suffering from a chronic illness and acted out of depression and anxiety. They may be wrong, technically, but we feel their pain and we understand. In each case, there are circumstances that we can empathize with, and in the case of the boxer or the widow, something they are passionate about doing is at the heart of the issue. Ethos is the ethical side of the argument, the question of what is right. Now, there are not two sides to every argument. Frequently there are 3, 5 or 10 sides. And, invariably, each side feels that they are right, and that right is on their side. The ethical argument is an appeal to a higher authority. When the rules won’t help you, the circumstances don’t arouse enough sympathy and compassion to win the day, and the other side thinks right is on their side – all is not lost. Almost every adversary thinks there is a right and a wrong based on context. The tax collector assumes it is right, just and lawful that everyone pays their fair share. The police officer assumes that law-breaker is no good at heart. The cell phone provider assumes that the person on the other end of the phone is taking full advantage of all the different “add-ons” he is paying for. To make the ethical argument almost always requires making the other person break with their context and challenging their assumptions, offering up an alternative. For instance, you might say to the tax collector, with the widow, that it is okay to take the widow’s last dollar, if they must, but that an innocent party, her daughter, is suffering the real harm, and that isn’t right, because her life is hard enough. Ahah! An exception to the rule! You are arguing that everyone should pay their fair share of tax, even to the last dollar – and you and the tax collector agree about this – but, you are saying that we should relax that rule when it comes to innocent third parties, and when the harm they would suffer has been demonstrated. (5) After you have made your arguments, it is wise to offer alternatives. Most people think win/lose, zero sum game. Most people are focused on what losing means for them. The tax collector will have to explain himself to his supervisor. The boxing authority may have to give up a more lucrative opportunity to give your contender his shot. The police and prosecutor may look weak if they let your man off. Each is afraid of losing. Once you have made your arguments, it is good to start a new paragraph that (a) recognizes and directly addresses the likely apprehension of the other side; and (b) offers an olive branch. For instance, in the case of the boxer, you could say that you recognize that this may not be the most lucrative fight because your man is not so well known as other contenders, but you are willing to make concessions to get the fight, to share the winnings and agree, if your man wins, to give the boxing authority a say in the next three title defenses. (6) Relinquish control. At the heart of every argument is the fear of what the other side will do to you, fear over the exercise of their power, fear of loss. But, the other side is just as afraid. They fear they will be boxed into a corner, lose control, and will suffer for the loss. Now that you have armed your adversary with your argument, you must trust your adversary and relinquish control. In this conceit, this submission, you have the unique opportunity to give ground and yet gain victory at the same time. You must recognize the other authority and give them permission to make the call. This is powerful magic. Instead of demanding and threatening, you are placing tremendous pressure on your opponent. Any man can find reason enough to battle a stubborn adversary who is unreasonable and arrogant. Few men can turn away from the opportunity to do the right thing without really searching their souls. The operative sentence might say something like this, “You have the power and the right to demand full payment from Mr. X for the debt you are owed, but I urge you to use that power to do the right thing, and if you choose to make him pay the full sum, even though he has only years to live, we will respect that decision.” (7) Enlist your adversary and make him your ally. Just as you have given the other side the power and laid your sword at his feet, standing before him unarmed, you can now pick up your shield and protect yourself with the greatest defense under God’s heaven. Rather than dictating your terms, recognize that your adversary has been down this road before, and call on his own sense of justice to find the right solution. “Mr. Tax Collector, now that I have set forth our arguments and explained why Mrs. Jones should be permitted to keep enough of her income to pay for her daughter’s braces, I would ask for your help in finding a solution that will work for everyone. I know that you see these dilemmas every day and that you have been doing this a long time. No doubt, with your experience, you have options available to you that I would never guess. I am open to discussing any option with you that you think would resolve this dispute amicably.” You will be amazed at how often your adversary will embrace this trust and go into problem solving mode, and do so with alarming honesty: “Well, I can’t let her off the hook, but if you can get me proof from the orthodontist of what the costs will be, and you can get a note explaining why the girl needs braces, I may be able to reduce the monthly payment.” If you are lucky enough to get such a chance from your adversary, follow their lead and let them guide you; they are now your ally and they are every bit as dedicated to your cause as you are. (8) Conclude with a call to action and follow-up. Nothing is more powerful than fulfilling a promise without a promise in return. “I will have my client send a good faith payment of $500, which is all she can afford, and I will call you next Tuesday. I hope that we can have a fruitful conversation about what I have presented and find some resolution to this problem.” It is too easy for most people to shy away from a difficult assignment. But, if you make a promise and keep it, two things will happen – the adversary may say to himself, “Well, alright, let’s see if he comes through and then maybe I’ll help,” and the second is that in anticipation of getting this conversation and in speaking to you again, the case will stay on his mind. In this way, you have both got his attention, and you have established a structure for the conversation – I will do something to show good faith – and I hope you will too.

Category: General


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