Need for Speed: Can the wheels of justice turn quicker?
“How long will this take?” An often-asked question clients pose to their lawyers. (The most often is, “How much will this cost me?”) In the legal world, unfortunately, it generally takes too long to get matters resolved.
I am not talking about solicitors’ matters or nonlitigious matters. I doubt a client will complain, “I saw my lawyer Monday to do my will, and she told me, ‘It won’t be ready till Friday.’ The wheels of justice move too slow.”
I am talking about litigious matters, such as a personal injury case that can take years from start to resolve. Aside from seeing how the injuries crystallize, time is consumed with dealing with an adjuster, issuing pleadings, going through the documentary and oral discovery process, motions, mediation and other pretrial resolution efforts, and then last but not least the trial. I used to say to clients at our first meeting, “See that maple tree out the window? The leaves will all fall off, snow will cover the branches, the leaves will return and go again several times before your case is done.”
I recall one client, Nick, who actually bolted to another lawyer after a few weeks. I asked my successor counsel the reason for Nick leaving me, and he said Nick did not like that comparison of his case to that maple tree. I thought Nick was in denial. However, just to be safe, I stopped using that analogy. I would say something biblical, like “This too shall pass.” This quote is attributed to a number of sources, including the wise King Solomon. Fortunately, from then onward, not one client bolted. I often wondered whether the Solomon quote would have saved my retainer with Nick.
And speaking of wise people, what did Einstein say about the relativity of time? There is a quote apparently attributed to this genius that goes, “When you sit with a nice girl for two hours, you think it’s only a minute, but when you sit on a hot stove for a minute, you think it’s two hours. That’s relativity.”
Television or movie legal cases of course move a lot quicker. I am thinking about the iconic Perry Mason. His murder cases all took about 50 minutes or so from the time that his client (innocent naturally) consulted him to the time that the charges were dismissed as the real killer, usually dumb enough to be sitting in the body of the court, would stand up and confess to the crime. I practiced for more than 40 years, and I can say I was never the beneficiary of this kind of success. Even in a simple shoplifting trial, I never had the good fortune of having some rogue rise and exclaim, “Enough already. It was I who stole that toothbrush.”
I cannot think of other callings that take so long to resolve. I recently went to the supermarket to buy a fresh barbecued chicken, and the clerk told me that they were still cooking, and they wouldn’t be ready for another half-hour. The half-hour felt like an eternity. I was tempted to say to the clerk, “Hey are you nuts? We’re starving.”
I then thought about that Einstein quote and relaxed. Putting a positive spin on it: Unlike those chickens, at least I did not have to be near that hot stove.
Then again, comparing a legal action to other professions such as medicine, even brain surgery takes only a few hours.
Similarly, dental procedures generally take less than an hour or so, although they sometimes feel like an eternity.
What can we do to expedite matters? Limit discovery procedures? Shrink the availability of trials by jury? This one I have no problem with. Allowing a group of laypeople without legal knowledge to make decisions on major financial or human liberty matters does not sit well with me. Getting back to that brain surgery, I shudder to think what would happen in the operating room if you would have 12 people sitting nearby, and the surgeon has to ask them, “I’m ready to cut. Is this area of the skull a good place to start?”
Also speaking of delays, is there a deficiency of judges? I don’t know. I actually applied to become a judge here in the province of Ontario, and I was never accepted. If the justice system was hurting as a result of not having enough judges, too bad. They missed their opportunity.
And, of course, it does not help that lawyers are often accused of being windbags, thereby dragging matters on unnecessarily. I once presented a client with a will I drafted. The client saw the words “give, devise and bequeath” and asked me, “Why can’t we just say, ‘I give?’ I’m sure my kids will be happy.”
I could not give him a satisfactory answer. At least I got the will drafted and ready by Friday. When I think of duration until resolution, for some reasons, I think about how long it took to complete the construction these European cathedrals, such as the Cologne Cathedral in Germany. It was started in 1248 and completed in 1880. Yeah, wow!
I suppose on that fateful day in 1248, a few important church and city officials gathered on the site and made speeches. The archbishop probably ably said something like, “Until now, we have had to pray in that little kirche on Ludvig Strasse, which could barely accommodate 150 worshipers. Once we finish this cathedral, we will be able to accommodate 1,000 people. I look forward to celebrating mass with all of you in our beautiful Dom of Köln very soon.”
Right, archbishop. And I hope to see the Toronto Maple Leafs win the Stanley Cup this century.
The mayor, or should I say “bürgermeister,” was probably equally optimistic. His address was no doubt similarly passionate. I can just visualize him standing next to a stage, holding a large spade, and digging the first load of earth. Then he gets on the platform and announces proudly, “This is just the beginning.”
How right he would have been.
Fortunately, our legal system is not that bad. But it ain’t perfect. What is? As another wise man, Yogi Berra said, “If the world were perfect, it wouldn’t be.”
Marcel Strigberger, after 40-plus years of practicing civil litigation in the Toronto area, closed his law office and decided to continue to pursue his humor writing and speaking passions. His just-launched book is Boomers, Zoomers, and Other Oomers: A Boomer-biased Irreverent Perspective on Aging. For more information, visit MarcelsHumour.com and follow him at @MarcelsHumour on Twitter.
This column reflects the opinions of the author and not necessarily the views of the ABA Journal—or the American Bar Association.