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Guide to Making the Law Work for You

December 17, 1985|MOLLY SELVIN | Selvin is a researcher with the Institute for Civil Justice at the Rand Corp

Put the Law on Your Side; Strategies for Winning the Legal Game by Bertram Harnett (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich: $17.95)

"Put the Law on Your Side" is not a book to read from cover to cover, but it is a worthy addition to a home reference collection. Bertram Harnett has written a "lay person's guide to recognizing common legal problems and learning tried-and-true methods of dealing with them."

He explains how readers can protect themselves in a variety of legal settings well before the need for a lawyer arises. Harnett also describes what lawyers do, when they will be useful and how to work with them. This is not a do-it-yourself guide; instead it is a plea for more knowledgeable and, hence, more reasonable clients.

Harnett is well versed in his subject with experience as a trial judge, private practitioner, law professor and public lawyer.

This book is well organized, comprehensive and readable. The table of contents runs 17 pages, permitting quick reference. Chapters cover the basics of personal injury, family law, criminal law, contracts, real estate transactions, the rights and responsibilities of employers and employees, financial management and probate. He offers specific advice on such diverse subjects as protecting a trademark or patent and drafting a premarital agreement. In addition, Harnett takes up settlement strategy, courtroom decorum, and the issue of when and how to act without a lawyer.

Practical View of Law

Harnett presents the law as it operates, not an idealized view. Often drawing from his experience on the bench, he illustrates how the behavior of lawyers, clients and judges influences legal conflicts and how time sometimes can transform the nature of disputes. In so doing, Harnett effectively underscores his thesis that, "There is a premium in the law for looking out for yourself. The law is not an automatic process: It is a product of what is fed into it, and you do part of the feeding."

Yet Harnett's me-first emphasis leads to some startling discrepancies between legal rights and morality. For example, in a section on how to conduct oneself at the scene of an accident, Harnett writes, ". . . never admit you were wrong and never say you acted improperly. . . . Moral choices are uniquely appropriated; but remember, concessions hurt your chances with the law."

In a discussion of criminal arrest, he offers this oblique but even more troubling bit of advice: "The decision to arrest is highly judgmental and . . . subject to error. Should the officer err in his judgment, it behooves you to do your best to see that he errs in your favor."

Discussion of 'New' Torts

In a similar vein of looking out for No. 1, Harnett includes a brief discussion of "new" torts, damaging conduct--outside the classic definition of tort--for which courts have permitted recovery. An example might be someone hiring away your employees to hurt your business. Although others might claim that some of these new torts border on frivolous litigation, Harnett admonishes that "the imaginative use of prima facie torts, where applicable, is a good way of protecting your rights and putting the law on your side."

This volume also suffers from a problem endemic to reference guides: It stretches to reach too diverse an audience. On the one hand, Harnett offers such astonishingly obvious advice as "never, never surrender an original document to the other side in a dispute," or "do not brag about your transgressions, your power, your wealth or anything else." Yet his discussions of defamation, statutes of limitation, and bankruptcy strategies assume a far more sophisticated reader.

In sum, Harnett has written a useful introductory reference guide to law as it most frequently affects individuals in the 1980s. But this book is perhaps of more interest because it takes the reader on an inadvertent excursion into the world of new torts, and into the juncture between contemporary law and morality.

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