Legal Tip Tuesday: Stand Up for Yourself

Standing up for yourself is essential when it comes to protecting your family’s legal rights. The law may be on your side, but you must have the backbone to use that law or it does you no good.

Before my hubby and I got married, he owned a house that he rented to a group of college kids. They had a standard lease in place that made them responsible to clean the house when they moved out and to repair any damages. Of course, being fairly typical college students, they didn’t clean much and didn’t repair anything they damaged. There were stains in the carpet, beer sprayed on the walls, holes in a door, food burnt all over the inside of the oven, etc….and they didn’t want to pay for any of the cleanup costs. They wanted their deposit back and were willing to scream to whoever would listen. Their team coach even called my husband to yell at him about the situation, and one of the renters threatened to sue my husband in small claims court.

At this point, my hubby could have given in to the pressure. It’s far easier to give someone what they want just to shut them up, but giving in to these renters would mean giving up money we were entitled to keep and needed for repairs. My husband stood his ground and we kept their deposit, which, by the way, didn’t even come close to covering the damages. The renters never sued us, though I’m not sure if that’s because they realized they had a losing case or because they didn’t want to bother with it.

What can you do when confronted with a similar situation? How can you stand up for yourself instead of letting a bully steamroll you? Here are some tips to dealing with conflict in a legal context.

First, get unemotional. It can be difficult to keep your cool when confronted with someone else’s unreasonable behavior, and if you can’t keep your cool try to get yourself out of the situation. Pause before making any decisions, if necessary, to make sure your decisions are coming from logic rather than emotions. If the other person is pressuring you to make a quick decision, calmly inform him you need to think about it and you’ll get back to him by a certain date. This gives you the opportunity to fully analyze the situation before acting. Pick your battles; don’t let the other guy pick it for you!

Second, determine your legal rights and responsibilities. It will do you no good to stand up for yourself if you’re in the wrong. You may need to visit a lawyer if your situation is complicated, or do some of your own research, but this step can be as simple as reading the contract that covers the dispute. For example, if my hubby’s renters had read their contract, they would have seen they were responsible to pay for these damages.

Third, decide how far you’re willing to take your conflict — and stick to that decision unless something major comes along to change your mind. It’s so easy to get upset and threaten things you have no intention of doing, but those kinds of threats just make you lose credibility when you don’t follow through. Don’t threaten to sue someone if you have no intention of actually filing a lawsuit. Trust me, it probably won’t work to pressure them into doing something, and it may cause them to go hire a lawyer. Once they’ve hired a lawyer, you may be into a bigger conflict than you ever intended.

Fourth, keep going. If you determined early on that you were willing to go as far as filing a complaint against a service provider for his failures or as far as filing a case in small claims court because that was the right thing to do, don’t give up on your decision until you decide, unemotionally, that it’s time to stop. Far too many people begin standing up for themselves only to tire of the legal process quickly and give up. Life gets busy or they don’t want to take the time to figure out how a process works so they let it go.

Sometimes things will work out like you wanted or like the law intended. Sometimes, they won’t. Sometimes, no matter how right you are, you’ll lose — perhaps because the other person has more power than you or more money or because someone else (like a judge or disciplinary board) makes a mistake. If that happens, do your best to shrug it off and move on. There will be satisfaction in knowing you stood your ground when it was important and you didn’t give in to the adult equivalent to a schoolyard bully.

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