A little apology can help you settle legal disputes

Updated: Jun 04, 2010, 09:37 AM IST

Washington: Apologies can play a far more important role than just comforting you - a little sorry can help settle legal disputes, says a new American study.

According to Jennifer Robbennolt, a University of Illinois professor of law and of psychology, apologies can potentially help resolve legal disputes ranging from injury cases to wrongful firings, giving wounded parties a sense of justice and satisfaction that promotes settlements and trims demands for damages.

She said: "Conventional wisdom has been to avoid apologies because they amount to an admission of guilt that can be damaging to defendants in court.

"But the studies suggest apologies can actually play a positive role in settling legal cases."

Robbennolt surveyed more than 550 people, gauging their reaction to apologies offered during settlement negotiations in a hypothetical injury case.

She said apologies generally reduced financial demands, increasing prospects for an agreement.

However, the nature of the apology matters.

Apologies that accept fault have more impact than apologies that merely express sympathy, but take no responsibility.

Robbennolt said apologies that accept blame can be powerful psychologically, giving plaintiffs a sense of closure and accountability that makes them less angry and more willing to forgive.

She explained: "The apology fulfills some of the goals that triggered the suit, such as a need for respect, to assign responsibility and to get a sense that what happened won`t happen again.

"So receiving an apology can reduce financial aspirations and make it possible for parties to enter into discussions about settlement."

For defendants, apologies can reduce legal costs as well as damages because cases may settle more quickly, said Robbennolt, who has studied the legal implications of apologies for a decade.

She said lawyers may view apologies differently because of their third-party view of the dispute, or because their training provides a perspective on the legal value of apologies that lay people fail to appreciate.

Robbennolt said: "Another possibility is the way in which the financial incentives of attorneys and clients can diverge.

"Settling cases quickly can mean lower fees for attorneys paid on an hourly basis. Or if the attorney is taking a contingency fee, that fee is smaller if cases are settled for less. As some lawyers say, you can`t take one-third of an apology."

How those diverging views of apologies play out when lawyers and clients mull settlements is unknown, she said, but could ensure a broad analysis of pros and cons that benefits clients.

Robbennolt said: "The findings tell lawyers that clients seem to value apologies in ways that lawyers don`t, so they need to be sensitive to those differences.

"At the same time, clients can benefit from getting advice from someone who can help them fully understand all of the legal implications so they can decide exactly how to respond to an apology."

She added: "There`s still a lot to learn, but based on the data we do have, it appears apologies can be a viable strategy."

The study appears in Court Review, a publication of the American Judges Association.