False Expectations

Posted on March 8, 2020 by Brian Jaress
Tags: work, people, story

Long ago, I was “the computer guy” at a small law firm. With all the meetings, depositions, and odd working hours people had, I was sometimes the only one in the office, as I was when one of the lawyers called.

“Opposing counsel is coming by in an hour to pick up some documents from the accountants, and I won’t be there in time. Can you give it to them?”

“Sure, which documents?”

“Well, all the accountants’ documents are in the white binder on my desk, but you’ll have to call the accountants to find out which ones to turn over.”

“So, the accountants know?”

“You’ll have to read them part of the judge’s order. It’s next to the binder. The judge ruled against us on discovery last week and expanded the scope of what we are required to produce. The accountants sent them documents under the old scope, so find out what the additional documents are for the expanded scope and make copies.”

I found the binder and the order, read through the expanded scope, and called the accountants. I didn’t need the binder or the order after all.

“Oh,” said the accountant as soon as I explained that there was a new, broader definition of what we had to give the other side. “We already gave them everything.”


“All of the documents that exist fit the old definition, so we sent them a copy of the whole binder. If you read through the binder, you can tell nothing is missing.”

“OK . . . thanks.”

When I called the lawyer, he laughed. “If there’s nothing to give him, give him nothing.” (This was before everyone had cell phones, or we would have tried to save him a trip.)

By the time opposing counsel arrived, I had decided what to tell him. “Sorry,” I said, “we just found out from the accountants that no additional documents exist.”

“What? We have a court order!”

“Yes, but the original scope already covered everything, so they already gave you everything. There is nothing else.”

He was more upset than I expected. I had seen him argue over legal issues, large amounts of money, and accusations of lying or fraud. But this was the angriest I’d ever seen him.

“We won the motion! We’ve been fighting this for months, and we won. How could there be no documents?”

“I don’t know. I think no one asked the accountants until now if there were more documents.”

“This is ridiculous!” He threw his hands in the air. “I’ll have you thrown in jail for contempt of court!”

I had no reply to that, and I still had nothing to give him, so he left, empty-handed. (I did not go to jail, and neither of us mentioned it again, though we rode an elevator together a few weeks later.)

For years, I thought of what happened as a unique incident: a specific misunderstanding and a certain person’s reaction to it, in the already confrontational setting of litigation. Over time, I’ve come to feel that it wasn’t so unusual. False expectations from miscommunication are common in many fields, and the disappointment they bring often deeply upsets people who’ve put time and energy into them.