The novel “Catch-22” by Joseph Heller is a classic of modern literature and the root of the paradox that became known by that idiom: a “Catch-22.” We all know what it means conceptually, but have you ever considered that you may face Catches-22 (or Catch-22s) every day of your professional career?
A Catch-22 is a logical paradox. In the novel, which portrays the events of a U.S. bomber squadron in Europe during World War II, the basis for the term was, as best as I can describe it, thus:
A pilot or crewman who was unfit would be grounded from missions. But to be so grounded, the pilot or crewman must first make the request that he be evaluated so as to determine if he was unfit. Of course, if the pilot or crewman did make such a request, he clearly could not have been unfit, because he knew well enough to make such a request. Thus, the paradox. It was impossible to be declared unfit.
Our professional lives may not be quite as confining as in the novel, however we all face the same issues. Consider the practitioner in the field of civil litigation (since I have some experience in that arena). The civil litigator is, for lack of a better term, a trained assassin. And, for the litigator who charges on an hourly basis (I am exempting those practitioners who primarily take matters on a contingency basis), a litigated matter is a strong source of cash flow and business sustainability. A litigated matter which proceeds over the course of many months can be akin to an annuity, a steady income stream which is the lifeblood of many a law practice.
The statistics are out there and they are staggering. 98% of all lawsuits that get filed never proceed through to trial and verdict. So whereas only 2% of lawsuits actually end with a winner and a loser, the rest resolve themselves prior to trial. And at that, they don’t all settle on the courthouse steps the day that jury selection is to begin. They settle at all points on the map between filing of the lawsuit and the trial date.
So go back to my earlier statement about the litigator and it being the potential lifeblood of a law practice. The litigator needs the lawsuit to drag on, to proceed through many months of discovery, motions, depositions, and settlement conferences. The longer he/she can drag it on, the more cash flow that can be derived.
But not necessarily the best for the client. The best case scenario would be a positive outcome at minimal cost.
Thus, the paradox. Does the litigator do what is best for his client, knowing that the best case scenario for the client, if achieved, will actually prove to be a poor business model?
The same can be said in other professions as well: insurance, real estate, banking. With a society as cost-conscious as it is, it is the professional who gets the lowest-cost for his client who will be successful. But when an insurance agent’s commission is a percentage of the cost of the insurance procured, and the best case scenario for the client is the lowest cost insurance available, that doesn’t provide the best money-making strategy for the professional, does it?
Or the real estate broker representing a buyer. The higher the price, the better the commission. But the client wants to pay as little as possible; so if the broker is successful in making the deal at the lowest cost, it results in a lower commission.
Seems to all come down to ethics, don’t you think? Your clients either trust you because you are ethical and will make their best interests your number one priority, or you will cease to have clients. Of course, you can’t get rich on ethics. But hopefully you can at least be successful.