Lawyers, Math, and Why You Can’t Buy A Third-Pound Burger at A&W.

This week’s blog was co-authored with Jenny Bradley, a Family Law Mediation Attorney in the Research Triangle in North Carolina.  

In a perfect world, any half-way serious review of fast food burgers from around the country would rank the A&W Third-Pound burger right up there with In N’ Out and Shake Shack. By all reports the Third-Pound was a burger among burgers. Fresh, grilled, delicious, and it was priced below McDonald’s latest, and biggest seller, the ubiquitous Quarter Pounder (0r, as Vincent Vega would say, the ‘Royale with cheese’).

We’d go for one now, it sounds that good. Except we can’t – and that has nothing to do with the fact there are a whole lot fewer A&W’s around these days than in the early ‘80’s.

It has everything to do with the fact the Third-Pound was a miserable failure. Sure, it was big, sure it was fresh and delicious, sure it was cheaper than a Quarter Pounder. None of that mattered, what mattered was some 40% of the hamburger eating public believed that the Third-Pounder was smaller than the Quarter Pounder. Because 4 is greater than 3.

This happened in the mid-Eighties. It’s hardly a stretch to say that America’s grasp of mathematics has not improved since the A&W fiasco.

That’s a problem.

We are both lawyers, albeit with very different focuses. We both need math – we deal with a variety of financial issues, sometimes complex. But we deal with it. Even though we have the Dr. McCoy excuse – “Dammit, Jim, I’m a lawyer not a mathematician.”

While true, when confronted with a knotty financial issue that pops up during a foreclosure or compiling a divorcing couple’s assets, we do the math. It’s never as hard as it seems before we start.

Getting clients to do the math, though is sometimes daunting. We need forms filled out and basic calculations made before we can do much. But, it’s math, and the forms look imposing, and it’s personal and in many ways it represents a finality – of a marriage, of a home. So, no one’s rushing to get it done.

That’s all fine and, somewhat, to be expected. We cajole and remind and bug and get it done.

Our ‘Third-Pound’ scenario, though, pops up when we’re asked ‘what are the odds’. “What are the odds I keep the house?” “If I take it to court, what are the odds …?” and every possible variation and scenario.

We’ve been practicing long enough and intensively enough in our respective areas of concentration to be able to answer this and be pretty damn close. If we answered. But, we are loathe to do so. Because if it’s true that the average American is not good with math, then it’s even more true that they are really bad with odds.

Not sure about this? Well, poll your friends after the local weather guy predicts a 70% chance of rain and nothing beside a few black clouds roll overhead. You’ll find that a more than a few will complain about the ‘blown’ forecast. In any group of friends and acquaintances, by the way, there is always at least one person who will say, “Ha! They always get it the forecast wrong!”

The weatherperson didn’t get it wrong, of course. Because there was a 30% chance of it not raining. Not insignificant. Yet most people never heard 70%, they heard ‘It will rain.’ Because 70 is closer to 100 than 30 is.

As most legal matters are just a little bit more important than a rain shower, you could see where giving odds could be problematic.

Then, there’s the flip side of this. The Patriots just won a Super Bowl after being down 25 points in the third quarter. At the time, the odds (they were calculated online as the game went on by various sites) gave them a .4% chance of winning. When they were down 28-20 with four minutes left, they had an 8% chance of winning.

But they won. Coming back from a deficit like that hadn’t happened in 50 previous Super Bowls. Statistics tell us it shouldn’t happen again for at least another 50. Though statistics also tell us it could happen again next year, then not repeat for another 100 or more Super Bowls.

Rare is rare, but there’s no telling when it might pop up.

Which leads to another math problem for lawyers. Instead of the Third-Pound Dilemma, it’s the ‘So you’re telling me there’s a chance dilemma’, watch:

Put these two dilemmas together and we think you’ll understand why we are really, really careful answering ‘what are the odds’ questions.

About My Schoolhouse Rock Facebook Post

IMG_0209Earlier today, I posted an old Schoolhouse Rock video on my Facebook page.  You’ll either recognize it from your childhood or from recently studying for the AP Government test (and why not, it’s that good!), it’s the famous ‘How a Bill Becomes Law.’

I posted it because I spent yesterday at the Connecticut State House for the formal signing of a new law, one that I helped work on in the spring.

ImjustabillIt was the bill signing for a bill that, among many other things, will prevent debt collectors from –literally—whiting out evidence that they present to the court when suing consumers on credit card debt.  Yep, they were routinely whiting out entire sections of information on documents that they didn’t think was relevant—you or I couldn’t get away with that!  And now debt collectors can’t either.

It’s great that this was signed into law, it’s pretty amazing that we had to get a law passed to stop debt collectors from doing something that has always been legally and morally wrong for the rest of us. But, it was really nice to see our little Bill grow up.

This is Where …

Broadway-0837-SlaveShip. . .I came in.

There’s a phrase that’s fast dying out. Oh, a few people still say it, usually when they get stuck listening to a repetitive argument – you know, a roll of the eyes as the speaker comes back to the same point yet again, then, “This is where I came in, I’m outta here.”

Easy to envision, we’re in the middle of a Presidential Election cycle.

Most people, though, don’t know what the origin of the phrase is. And, there’s no reason they should, it gets increasingly more archaic every day. It’s from the days when movie theaters ran features on a continuous loop. Walk in for a 4:15 show at 5:00, watch the last 45 minutes or so, then stay as the movie starts again. Bang, right back into it, you stay until you’re caught up, you leave … where you came in.

This was such a thing that some movies – Psycho, in particular – used it as a marketing Psycho_tiftool. “Absolutely No One Admitted After The Start!”

Today, there are so many ads and trailers before every movie that I, at least, need to be reminded what film I’m there to see by the time the theater finally goes dark. Even without all that, in this day of Spoiler Alert, it would never work without some form of violence.

Also – can you imagine seeing Pulp Fiction this way? Impossible to follow, I’m willing to bet.

Which – you had to know this was coming – is exactly what showing up in court after the case starts is: close to impossible to catch up. If they still let you in, because a lot of court actions come with the Alfred Hitchcock admonition, “No one … but no one” can participate after certain court proceedings start.

In court particularly foreclosure proceedings, we have to show up on time, sit through the ads and the coming attractions and go step by step, on time, from there. There’s little to no room for ‘coming in’ at any other time.

Cinco de Mayo and Debts (Really)

More history of debt – I think we can all agree that Cinco de Mayo is a pretty fun day. A celebration of great food, drink, festive, upbeat.

IMG_0855What most people don’t know is how the holiday came to be. It’s not, as a lot of North-of-the-Border types believe, Mexican Independence Day. The 5th marks the Battle of Puebla in 1862 between French and Mexican forces in which a rag tag Mexican army of 2,000 routed a French army – and a division of the Foreign Legion – of 8,000.

That’s right, the French and Mexican armies fought a series of battles in the middle of our Civil War that eventually resulted in a French installed government ruling Mexico until 1866.

“Well, great, Sarah, thanks for the history lesson, it’ll probably be worth a drink or two in a bar trivia contest some day, but what does this have to do with debt?”

Everything, actually. Napoleon III’s invasion and eventual take-over of Mexico was, in fact, perhaps the largest repossession action in history.

After the Mexican-American War and a series of revolutions and civil wars, Mexico was mired in debt and was forced to suspend payments on its foreign debt. With the Civil War raging in the United States, Mexico’s European creditors didn’t have to worry about the Monroe Doctrine. The British and Spanish sent naval forces to Vera Cruz to register their displeasure, they quickly negotiated new repayment schedules. The French, however, were not so easily appeased (or maybe the new payment schedules with Spain and Britain left little for the French) and invaded.

Cinco de Mayo was a successful debt defense worth celebrating. It should be noted, however, that while it was a spectacular upset, the victory was fleeting and Mexico was, in effect, repossessed by the French for four very miserable years.

It was the military equivalent of firing off a strongly worded letter to a creditor, filing a complaint with the BBB, very satisfactually slamming the phone down on the subsequent toll free call, then watching the creditor exploit a rare loophole and still repossess your car.

I like to think I can be as ferocious as that rag tag Mexican Army when it comes to consumer debt, but I know I’m a lot more effective in the long run.

Still, I – and I hope my clients – have more reasons that tequila, great food and good company to celebrate Cinco de Mayo. It’s somehow . . . empowering.

Statistics and Empathy

To paraphrase one of the five worst* people who ever lived, ‘when something really bad happens to one person, it’s a tragedy; when it happens to a million, it’s a statistic.’

360_1929_crash_1028This is certainly true of foreclosures. At least today.

I bring this up because I am sometimes asked why I expend such time and energy defending foreclosure actions. I say sometimes because it’s only occasionally verbally stated, usually it’s expressed via ‘that look.’

‘That look’ – a slight crinkling of the eyebrows, a thin, quick frown, maybe a brief tilt of the head when I say what I do.

Unless, of course, they have been through foreclosure themselves or had family or friends involved. Then I get a knowing nod, smile.

Why? Because years ago, before I graduated high school, foreclosures were something that happened to ‘other people’ and in virtual secrecy. They were much, much rarer on the court calendars than they are today. And, it probably took a lot more to get a case to court. Banks and mortgage companies were much more likely to be local – another word for approachable. You could talk to your banker, lender, face-to-face, work things out.

Foreclosures then were small tragedies that happened in the very occasional neighborhood.

The financial meltdown of 2007-8 changed that. In months, millions of homeowners were at risk and failing quickly. Very, very few local banks and lenders exist anymore, corporations and computers took over years ago. Out of necessity, the foreclosure process became industrialized.

The people in the long lines and crowded hallways in the courthouses have become statistics. In the eight years since the meltdown the two largest foreclosure firms in the Greater Hartford area have filed over 70,000 foreclosure cases. And counting.

The great tragedy with that is individuals are lost. Completely. A file is a file is a statistic – win, lose, draw, but close the case.

So, when I get ‘that look’ I try to bring it back to the first or second person, away from that horrible third person ‘them.’ The easiest, most effective way is to point out the effect of this crisis on neighborhoods – “Well, would you want a foreclosed house in your neighborhood?  How about more than one?”

That takes it back to the first person pretty quickly. I can’t enforce empathy, but I can provide it, though I wish I didn’t have to.

*Maybe a future post will rank my top ten worst humans.