“The Lawyer Dwells On Small Details”
The California Court of Appeals published an interesting case a couple years ago in 2015 called Womack v. Lovell that started out with a rather unique introduction that is the subject of this particular post:
“In his rock and roll standard, ‘End of the Innocence,’ Bruce Hornsby notes that ‘The lawyers dwell on small details.’ That’s true. We have to. The devil isn’t the only resident in the details; sometimes truth and fairness lodge there as well. In this case, we address a ‘detail’ that was lost or hidden and resulted in what we consider an injustice. Fortunately, as is usually the case, painstaking attention to other small details enables us to correct this injustice. If you dwell on small details with an eye to fairness, the law works well.”
In Womack , the issue was a failure by a plaintiff contractor to produce a verified certificate of license, which was required under a somewhat obscure statute in the Business and Professions Code in order to bring a lawsuit in the first place. This “small” detail wasn’t pointed out until the day of trial by the defendants, at which time the plaintiff suddenly saw his surefire win turn into a surefire loss. Notably, the plaintiff was in-fact licensed and everyone knew he was licensed; all that was missing was an official piece of paper saying as much, but that was enough. While the Court of Appeals was able to partially remedy this injustice to a degree by looking at another small detail – i.e. that one of the defendants had previously admitted that the plaintiff was licensed – this only saved plaintiff’s case against one of the defendants, not all of them.
Although the details of Womack are certainly interesting if you’re a contractor, or are in the business of working with contractors, what is more helpful and instructive to everyone else is the Court of Appeal’s opening paragraph, emphasizing the importance of what we would normally consider to be insignificant details. In everyday life we ignore or overlook such details on a regular basis – the sign at the gas station telling us to turn off our cell phones, the solid white line on the road that we’re not supposed to cross, and the pesky security messages warning us to check an attachment or downloaded file are just a few of the things we tend to ignore or overlook in the course of life as unimportant. But it is crucial for litigants, or a potential litigants, to learn to focus on just such “small” details and bring them to the attention of their attorneys or directly to the Court if they’re representing themselves.
At the outset of the case, the client almost always knows more about the facts of her case than the attorney. Oftentimes he will have been living with his case for months, if not years, and will have accumulated a mountain of potentially useful evidence. While it is an attorney’s job to help the client to sort through this evidence and identify what is relevant and useful, at the end of the day an attorney can only work with what is given by the client when asked for. We’ve had cases where seemingly trivial facts like the timing of taking out the garbage or the signature block of an e-mail turned out to be important details and only appreciated such details with the assistance of our clients.
So if you are new to a lawsuit, embroiled in the middle of a lawsuit, or think you may become involved in one anytime soon, it is important to recognize that although the words of the Court of Appeals are meant for lawyers, the wisdom of those words applies to everyone – while it is indeed our job as attorneys to dwell on the small details, oftentimes we rely on you, the client, to provide us with some of those details when it comes to the facts of your case. Your attention to those small details – every word, every sight, and every sound that you can remember – could mean the difference between winning or losing at trial.
TLDR: The relationship between an attorney and client is best when it is one of collaboration and cooperation. Only when both “dwell” on the small details can the “truth and fairness” hidden in those details be found and turned to the benefit of the case.
If you’re involved in a lawsuit or risk management and have any questions regarding current or potential legal issues, we would urge you to contact an attorney as soon as possible to obtain advice, guidance and representation. At Baker, Keener & Nahra, we have the experience, skill, and drive to get the best possible results for our clients, no matter the size of the case or the scope of the problem. So if we can be of any assistance to you, please contact us and let us know how we can help.