Even though I don’t list it in my tongue-in-cheek biography, I am a lawyer–even though I am not now a practicing lawyer. One of the things I think I learned as a lawyer is that civil lawsuits are an ineffective way of making people happy–and people often file suit, not out of coldly rational calculus, but because they are trying to fill an unmet emotional need. It may sound great to win a giant verdict, but 95% of the time, a favorable ruling is an ephemeral brass ring that disappears once you touch it.
I started thinking about this a few days ago, when Kristin posted on her blog about cover consultations. One of the commenters suggested that someday, a publisher would be sued, and an injunction obtained, over cover consultation. It might happen one day–but it struck me as such a horribly wrong-headed approach to the matter, that I’ve been thinking about the problem presented for days.
It won’t surprise you to hear that some lawyers advise clients, when faced with a potential lawsuit, to avoid admitting guilt or providing information. After all, if you say, “I’m sorry, it was my fault,” in court, they will ask you, “Hey, didn’t you say it was your fault?” And you will have to answer yes, and then you will lose. But there was a rather startling study produced by the Journal of American Medicine a few years ago that found that in malpractice cases, lawsuits went down if someone sat down with the people in question, told them precisely what went wrong, admitted fault and responsibility, and told them how they’d taken measures to prevent such accidents in the future.
Why? Personally, I think it’s because most people don’t file lawsuits because they’re trying to get the money or because they honestly believe it is the best step to take in their careers. Most people file lawsuits because they’ve been hurt, they are angry, and they want to feel vindicated. They file lawsuits because they’ve stopped seeing the person they care about as human and real, and they see them only as an adversary to be ground into the dust. Adding that human touch–letting the patients know that the doctors did care, and responded to their pain and wanted to do what was right–made a huge difference. Ultimately, people know that a lawsuit will never bring Grandma back. But being treated by the medical professionals as if you are human instead of a walking, talking liability helped them channel their grief and anger in some way other than lashing out legally.
I’m not trying to say that lawsuits serve no purpose. They do, obviously, and they’ve done great (and terrible) things for our society. I’m not even trying to say that you shouldn’t sue doctors for malpractice. If a doctor is incompetent, she should not be treating patients, and I approve of methods that make it impossible for that doctor to earn a living.
But I do think that your life will be happier and more free of stress if you try not to find a lawsuit everywhere you look. This is especially true of publishing contracts. Most of what I saw in my publishing contract was about two sides working together. I’m going to give them a timely product that is the best work I can do. They’re going to let me know how to make it even better, and I’m going to listen–because we both want the same thing, which is for my books to capture as many readers as possible.
And I don’t see how I could have that relationship if I thought of the contract, and our agreement, as an adversarial one.
Sometimes, this relationship breaks down. (When it does, it leads to cringeworthy train wrecks on Dear Author that leave me noting to myself that I will never, ever under any circumstances work for a publishing house where managers tell authors to shut up or sue.) But most of the time, you don’t hear anything about it–except thanks, from authors to editors and publishing house staff, for all their hard work.