Are you a litigious business owner? Do you copy your attorney on correspondence to a non-paying client or a vendor? Have you ever threatened another business owner with “I’m going to sue you”? Is this something you do as part of your day-to-day business routine? Does your county’s local business judge know you by name? If so, you probably are not effectively managing the litigation aspect of running a business.
As a Metro Detroit business attorney, I frequently encounter clients who are always “ready to sue.” However, as an attorney, my job is to counsel the client regarding all possible approaches, and to the extent that litigation is the preferred route, I am always honest with the client regarding the judicial process. If your lawyer talks up your case, or uses terms like “sure thing” or “slam dunk” to describe the lawsuit, stop and ask questions. Litigation is not a “hammer” with which to punish someone who wronged you – rather, the justice system is designed to be a neutral process to achieve a the correct result by applying the law to your specific facts.
But you may be thinking–come on Dan, this guy or girl totally screwed me! File the lawsuit tomorrow! I WANT BLOOD!!! I’ll pay you, whatever it takes!
But that approach is only likely to result in added time, expense, and headache for you. No matter how strongly you feel about your case, you absolutely must consider the following and discuss with your attorney:
- Litigation is a lengthy process – it may take years to reach a resolution at the trial court level, and then there is always the risk of appeal. Yes, years. Even if you think your case is “easy.” Remember the goal of the justice system is to reach the correct result, given certain facts and the law. Very rarely do the courts dispose of a case quickly, and it is especially so when you are the plaintiff (the side who initiates the lawsuit) because you will have the burden of proof. Most judges are also inclined to let cases drag on, in hopes that the case will settle and the judge won’t have to make a decision. If you file a lawsuit, be prepared for the long haul.
- Litigation is a disruptive and unpleasant process – as a business owner, you should never approach litigation as a money-making scheme. Litigation will not only require a substantial financial investment (see below), but it will also be disruptive to your business. You and your staff will need to search for and provide all relevant documents, emails, texts, phone logs, etc. as part of the discovery (or fact-finding process) to your attorney. You and your staff will have to appear for depositions (to provide testimony in this case). Then there are motion hearings and trial. If there are electronic data storage issues, you will need to retain an IT expert. All of this takes time and resources away from your business and you must do a careful cost-benefit analysis before getting involved in litigation.
- Litigation is an expensive process – you may easily end up paying tens of thousands of dollars to your lawyers over the course of the case. The fact-finding process that is discovery is the most costly and lengthy. Paying your attorney to attend a 5 hour deposition, review the transcript, respond to discovery requests, and craft your own discovery requests adds up very quickly. And, even if you win, YOU DO NOT GET YOUR ATTORNEY FEES PAID BY THE OTHER SIDE. The only exception to this general rule in the business world is a contract provision that expressly provides that the loser pays the winner’s attorney fees in the event of litigation. Of course, such a provision is a double-edged sword that applies to both parties.
- Litigation is an uncertain process – cases are rarely black and white and no attorney can predict what a judge (or jury) will do with your claim. You may have an unpredictable or eccentric judge. You may have attorneys on the other side that will make life not only difficult through discovery, but also expensive by dragging out the process. Also, even if you go to trial or win on a motion, there is always a chance for the losing party to appeal. And, if the Court of Appeals “remands” the case–meaning sends it back to the trial court with instructions–the process could very well restart and drag on for years more.
So what’s a business owner supposed to do? What are some options to enforce your contracts short of going to court? You should consult an attorney about the following options:
- Consider pre-suit facilitation, but be mindful of the applicable statute of limitations.
- Consider using arbitration clauses in your contracts to mandate an alternative dispute resolution process between the parties.
The unpredictability and expense of litigation also highlights the need to retain an attorney to advise your business and review any contracts before signing them.
The bottom line is a business does not make money litigating. It is a huge drain on time and resources that could be spent growing market share. If you find yourself considering litigation or on the receiving end of a lawsuit, contact an experienced business law attorney immediately for a consultation.