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Conflicts come in all sorts of shapes, sizes and guises, and as a lawyer and mediator, I have undoubtedly encountered most of them. Yet it's in my work as a judge at Small Claims Court that I often get the dubious privilege of seeing conflict at its most severe and most fascinating.
One of the more energetic disputes I judged occurred not long ago. It was a real media case, involving the daughter of the head of a major record company, the defendant, and her erstwhile agent, the plaintiff.
The case itself was not particularly earthshaking. The defendant, who was an aspiring actress, had engaged the plaintiff to act as her agent. The plaintiff, she claimed, had made grand promises of signing her to a movie deal. The agreement was an informal one, with no detailed contract as to expectations and fees for services.
The plaintiff was under the impression that she would not only get a percentage of the deal, but would be paid for any time and effort she put into it, regardless of whether or not her efforts led to a job for the defendant. So, she made several trips to New York, a lot of phone calls, and put forth, she claimed, considerable effort on her client's behalf.
However, after three months and no deals, the defendant decided that the plaintiff wasn't doing her job and pulled out of the agreement without paying a nickel for any services, real or imagined. The plaintiff subsequently sued successfully for $2,500 worth of travel and related expenses, and the case made its way to my small claims appeals. (Attorneys are allowed to represent clients at small claims appeals; in effect, it is a newtrial.)
When the two parties stood before me, they were armed for battle. The record mogul's daughter arrived with a full entourage that included her lawyer, a stable of pompous "expert" witnesses and a pushy mother who ordered everyone around like a circus ringmaster. The plaintiff, a young woman new in her profession, was also auspiciously padded and showed up with her own attorney and witnesses.
All the participants treated the affair as if it were a huge federal case. Every time the defendant opened her mouth, her mother would interject, with statements like, "See? If you'd listened to me, none of this would have happened!" One of the "expert witnesses," whom the mother had engaged, was a top Hollywood agent who had a list of credentials as long as my arm and wanted to make sure I knew every one of the 37,000 things he'd done, and that he knew the agent's code of ethics up, down and inside out. It was a real zoo; everybody was talking at once, and I felt more like Arnold Schwarzenegger in Kindergarten Cop than a judge, as I valiantly tried to maintain order in the court.
Meanwhile, the plaintiff came loaded down with documents showing all of her expenses, as well as written evidence that the defendant had kept encouraging her to proceed in her efforts. However, since there were no signed agreements, the defendant maintained that the plaintiff should be paid nothing at all, that she had worked totally on contingency, and that she had pulled out when she found out the plaintiff was acting "unethically"
Now, one of the ways I differ from many of my colleagues on the small claims bench is that I'm always trying to find out what's really at the bottom of any conflict. So, after I hear all the evidence, I always ask both the plaintiff and the defendant two unexpected questions. The first is, "If this situation were ever to arise again, what would you do differently, if anything, from what you actually did?" And the second is, "What have you learned from everything that's happened, including this trial?" If there has been any question in my mind as to what the decision ought to be in the case, I will make a judgment according to how the two parties answer these questions.
As you might imagine, both the record mogul's daughter and the agent were taken aback. The agent finally decided that she would never enter into any work in the fixture without having a clear and detailed written agreement. The daughter was so flabbergasted by the "pop quiz," and so used to having answers put in her mouth by her mother, that she stood there in bewildered silence.
I didn't believe the plaintiff, because I knew that the record mogul's daughter was such a big plum for a struggling new agent to get that she would have been willing to sacrifice anything to land the account. As for the defendant, she acted so guilty and ashamed of herself that I guessed that the real issue was not the money or the quality of the agent's work. Rather, at some point the agent probably got too bossy and reminded the defendant of her mother, setting off an explosion and causing her to rebel against this unwitting symbol of obnoxious parental authority. But at the same time, she was so embarrassed by her inability to make a go of her career that she felt she had to cover up her failure in the ultracritical eyes of her family. So she allowed mother to run the show and make the agent the scapegoat.
I ended up giving judgment for the plaintiff in the amount of what she was able to show were her on-the-record out-of-pocket expenses. But I awarded her nothing for the hours she spent; I decided that her time was her lesson. My decision, however, isn't really important. What is far more crucial to this book is what this particular incident of locked horns illustrates about the nature of conflict.