The customer is always right, they say. One day, however, after 15 years representing clients in large litigation and arbitration proceedings, I started to wonder about this.
How on earth is it possible that all the clients who come through the doors of our law firm are always right? And how is it possible that all those clients who are wrong always find their way to the other side of the park, to our competitors?
This started to bother me almost daily until I found an ad on Facebook for photography course for beginners. Photography had always been close to my heart, but, so far, I had just taken random shots on my iPhone.
So I enrolled in the course. We gathered on a picturesque early summer morning in downtown Helsinki. My first task as a photographer was to choose a target, something of which I wanted to capture a masterpiece. I looked around and chose the brand new Helsinki Music Hall as my subject. The weather and conditions for a piece of art were perfect.
I was carefully preparing for taking the photo, but before I was allowed to push the shutter button, I was told to verbalise what I saw in the picture.
Simple, I thought. The Music Hall, of course, and the blue sky, I stated. May I now take the picture? “No. List everything you see in the picture,” came the strict command. I began to observe the view through the lens more closely. I noticed that there was road construction work going on in front of the building. The road had been dug up, and the hole in the ground was lined with ugly-looking wire fences, some of which had been knocked over. There were concrete barriers and barbed wire thrown on the lawn, and three trash cans on the right hand, all bursting with trash, which the birds had spread all around them.
Pizza boxes, cans, plastic bags, wrapping papers, cigarette packets. It was like some sort of rubbish dump in front of the Music Hall.
In my masterpiece.
The sun was shining warmly in the clear blue sky and the birds were singing, as I suddenly understood something fundamental about dispute resolution. At that moment I realised why we only have those clients who are right coming through the doors of our office.
It’s, first of all, because we all look at the world through different lenses. We all carry different experiences from our past. We come from different families. We have attended different schools. Our learnt values are different. We have different talent, and we have had to fight our ways through different challenges. That’s why we see situations differently, and different things in the same picture. We can look at the same picture, but from our own point of view we only see what we want to see and what we are capable of seeing.
Then again, as contracting parties, we often look at the big picture from completely opposite angles. We want different things from a contract. We have different goals. One party wants money, while the other party wants goods. One party wants a long-term relationship, while the other party only needs a one-night-stop. Our point of entry is always different. When we sign a contract, we are so eager to get what we want that we focus all our attention on our goal only. We are so good at ignoring everything else that is actually in the picture. When we want to have the Music Hall, our ability to see anything else in the picture is limited.
“You should be able to put yourself in the place of the other party already when drafting a contract.”
– Jussi Lehtinen, Partner, Dispute Powerhouse
That’s why disputes arise. This is why in the court room we see things completely differently, and both sides feel they are right. We take the Music Hall to the courtroom, while the other party stacks pizza boxes, concrete barriers, trash cans and a barbed wire fence on the table. There is no way we can understand how the other party sees the matter so differently. The understanding stops at the latest, when we in our contractual wardrobe lock the door from inside, and start building our own Narnia. Since then there is no space for other reality.
This is why on the both sides of the park there are only clients who are right.
In order for disputes to be avoided, you should be able to put yourself in the place of the other party already when drafting a contract. Early in contract negotiations one should actively gain an understanding of what issues are key to the other party. What do they see in the picture and what don’t they see? How do they comprehend the text of the contract, its consequences, limitations of liability, purchase price mechanism, scope, wording, and any nuances of the wording?
The exactly same applies to succeeding in legal proceedings. If there are two parties in the court room, both of which are right, who will then prevail? The answer is the same as regarding the contract negotiations. In order to succeed in legal proceedings, you should be able to see the situation through the lenses of the other party, and above even that, you should be able to step into the boots of the judge or arbitrator to understand how they see the picture. Do they see the Music Hall or all the trash stacked on the table? And on the top of that, the most important question to be asked: what is it they need from us for being able to make the only right decision in the matter?
This is the anatomy of success in legal proceedings. They call it empathy. I call it the ability to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. In order to win, you must be able to see the situation through the lenses of the judge or the arbitrator.
And your customer will always be right.