Legal Affairs



            There are few life domains where our sentiments are so conflicted and paradoxical as law, lawyers, and legal affairs.  These divergent points of view are shared by the great minds of our time.  Aristotle praised the law. “The law is reason free from passion.”  Aristotle:  Politics, bk. 3.  Alternatively, Burke feared its power.  “Bad laws are the worst sort of tyranny.” Edmund Burke.  Others have focused on the class bias in all laws.  “The fine spider web of the law catches the fly and lets hawk go through.”  Spanish Proverb.

            In fact, modern law with its complexities is a relatively recent evolutionary development of human societies.  From our early tribal beginnings until the development of city-states, the rule of power dominated human affairs.  In a global transvaluation of morals, religions created rules that slowly replaced the purely power based ordering of society.  In the twentieth century, law replaces religion as the primary tool for taming the wild beast in man.  This has generated a growing view of law as a necessary evil.  “We, like the eagles, were born to be free.  Yet we are obliged, in order to live at all, to make a cage of laws for ourselves and to stand on the perch.”  William Bolitho:  Twelve Against the Gods.  Accordingly, a common perspective now is on the nuance of constructing laws that result in a perceptibly fair and orderly resolution of conflict.  “It is a very easy thing to devise good laws; the difficulty is to make them effective.  The great mistake is that of looking upon men as virtuous, or thinking that they can be made so by laws; and consequently the greatest art of a politician is to render vices serviceable to the cause of virtue.”  Henry S. John Bolingbroke

            A part of the ambivalence towards the law arises from its apparent cryptic and esoteric character.  In fact, however, there really are no difficult ideas in the law, just a morass of unfamiliar vocabulary calculated to create the impression of a subtle science when only common sense is at play.  Make a respectable effort, and you will penetrate the cloak of vocabulary. 

            A few areas of law are responsible for the majority of legal principles that ordinary people need to know.  They are: (a) the laws of marital property and child custody; (b) the law of contracts; (c) a little bit of the law of wills and trusts; and (d) the general laws of negligence liability.  These legal arenas vary a bit from state to state.  They are not difficult to understand with some effort, and a basic appreciation of these legal areas will greatly enhance your life.  It is shocking that millions of people graduate high school being able to solve algebraic simultaneous equations, which they will never use as an adult, and yet ignorant of the basics of law in these important domains.  It would be wise for everyone to read a summary, applicable to their state, of the basic areas of law before they attain the age of 21.  Additionally, given the amount of discourse in the public sector, it would also be good to read the U.S. Constitution, end to end, a few times, and think about it.  This later task could be accomplished in an hour or two.


Advice on Law and Lawyers

1.  Avoid hiring lawyers to do minor legal tasks like evictions, small suits, and divorces.  Try to read up and do these yourself; it’s easier than you think and it’s rarely cost effective to use a lawyer (unless very large sums of money are involved).

2.  Don’t break the law unless you do so out of a deep moral conviction (and are willing to live with the consequences) or unless you are committing a victimless crime (e.g., using an illegal drug).

3.  If you are charged with a crime, hire an attorney who has worked for a number of years as a public defender.  If you lack funds to hire an attorney, use the public defender.  Do not defend yourself if you are charged with a felony.  If you are arrested and charged with a crime, or taken for questioning regarding a crime, assert your right to remain silent and to have an attorney present.  Regardless of whether you are guilty or innocent, do not waive your Miranda right to remain silent.

4.  When hiring a lawyer search for someone who is young and who is not so successful and rich so as to regard your case as unimportant.  A hungry lawyer in a civil action is your best bet.

5.  Be open to resolving civil actions (suits) out of Court for less money than you want.

6.  Whenever hiring an attorney be clear with him about exactly how much money he charges and exactly what you are going to get for that money.  Attempt to hire a lawyer to finish a task (paying for the complete task) rather than hiring a lawyer by time.  Pay the smallest retainer possible (make sure considerable amounts of the fee are payable after he does his work).

7.  Don’t file a lawsuit just to vent anger.  Beware of attorneys who take advantage of your anger to induce you to engage in expensive and unnecessary legal actions.

8.  Don’t ever try to help a friend by telling a lie for him to a law enforcement officer.

9.  If you are a witness to a crime do not exaggerate the sureness of your memory and don’t feel pressured to identify people in line-ups.

10.  If you are present when a crime is committed be calm, try to memorize information that will help police (e.g., license plate numbers, facial features, type of gun, etc., etc.).  Use this focus to help yourself remain calm.

11.  If you are a victim of a crime follow the advice in #10 above and calmly search for a way to escape the situation.  Don’t attempt to escape without thinking it through and being fairly sure that you’ll make it.  Never verbally assault a criminal during a crime.  Never physically attack a criminal during a crime unless:  a) you are fairly sure your life is in danger or b) you are very sure that you will win.

12.  If you are a victim of a crime; report the crime and cooperate with the investigation and prosecution.  Women, this especially goes for rape and other sex crimes.

13.  When hiring a lawyer to do a complex task, make sure you hire someone who has handled a similar case before.

14.  Don’t support propositions to change the law unless you have carefully analyzed the pros and cons.  Be especially careful about supporting new laws when they are introduced in response to some single case or episode or some current emotional issue.

15.  Don’t take the law into your own hands and try to personally produce justice.  Solve your problems with people by using the legal process rather than through your own action.  Don’t commit a crime to revenge a crime.

16.  Calmly threatening to file a lawsuit, or better, having an attorney send a letter to this effect, often produces wonders for very little money.  Use threat, but use it in an adult way; calm, cold, deliberate, and unexaggerated.

17.  The most frequent mistake people make in their legal affairs is failing to create written agreements when dealing in business and personal financial transactions.  Clear written agreements would eliminate most legal disputes in business and personal financial affairs.  This is especially true for ongoing relationships, like joint ventures and partnerships, or in deals between friends and relatives (which are generally unwise).  Whenever you get involved in a significant business or financial transaction, you should think through and draft a detailed written agreement that covers all promises, duties, performances, and conditions.  If the agreement involves something very important, or a great deal of money, then it is worth it to retain a lawyer.  Do not substitute trust, friendship, or informality for a detailed written agreement.  Make sure the agreement is signed, scanned, saved, and honored.  If during the course of the agreement, changes are negotiated, confirm them in WRITING.  Generally, it is wise to have agreements sent via the internet where there will be a clear record of the source, time, and transmission of the agreement.

18.            Anyone who has significant wealth should enter into a written and enforceable pre-nuptial agreement before marriage, that, among other things, lists exhaustively your separate property.  This is one of those tasks that does require an attorney.

19.            Don’t sign a contract or agreement that you haven’t read.

20.            If you are over 45 years old, have significant money, or a dependent child, have an attorney draft a revocable living trust to handle the disposition of your assets upon your death or disability.

21.            In the event of a divorce, do not involve yourself in a child custody dispute to vent your anger at your spouse or to secure greater post-divorce support.  Don’t use your child to hurt your spouse, don’t denigrate your spouse, and reserve child custody proceedings to protect a child from physical abuse, body-threatening negligence, and SEVERE psychological abuse.  Otherwise, work cooperatively to have roughly equal custodial time in a mutually respectful manner.