To most normal people, an empty chair signifies something sad. It may mean a missing loved one or friend. It could mean the lack of a meaningful relationship, as in “table for one, with an empty chair on the side.” And if I’m not mistaken, there was even a song from the Civil War called “The Empty Chair,” about a holiday dinner table with an empty chair, a grieving family, and a lost boy who would never return home.
That’s what an empty chair means to most normal people. But I was a litigator for fourteen years, which means I’m not normal. Very, very not normal. To me, as to most litigators, the empty chair is something to be celebrated, not mourned, for it is a weapon of devastating power that can be used to crush your opponent.
A little unclear on the concept? Let me help.
Let’s just say, hypothetically speaking, of course, that you represent a company that manufactures elevators and escalators. And while we’re at it, let’s pretend that your client gets sued for an eight-figure damage award because some kid gets his foot mangled in one of your client’s escalators as he’s leaving the subway.
After discovery, your co-defendant, the local transit authority settles, because it’s a risk-averse, quasi-governmental entity, and that’s just what they do. Your client wants to play hardball, though, and takes it to trial. Only now there’s one defendant instead of two.
In the transit authority's place stands the empty chair.
At trial, you point to that empty chair every chance you get. It wasn't the design of the escalator that was the problem, you say, it was the transit authority. They installed it wrong. They maintained it poorly. They didn't shut it off soon enough.
And guess what? The transit authority isn't there to defend itself. By the time you're done, the jury will wonder why the escalator didn't explode with the transit authority running it.
And the poor plaintiff is left holding the bag. If he tries to defend the transit authority, he opens the door to introducing evidence of the settlement, and the money he's already received, making it look like he's trying to collect twice. If he says nothing, the jury will think he sued the wrong defendant.
"Divide and conquer?" Hardly. More like "split up and kick their ass."
So, I can hear you thinking, that's all cute and everything, but why should I care if I'm not a lawyer? You should care because this same "empty chair" principle applies to everyday life. It's all about misdirection and avoiding accountability.
In my job, for example, I can almost always deflect our employees' requests or complaints by saying I have to run them by my Board of Directors. The same is equally true outside the organization. I recently negotiated an excellent lease for our new headquarters by repeatedly pummeling the landlord with "There's no way I can get that lease provision by my Board, you're going to have to give me something if you want this deal to go through."
Parents are masters of the empty chair game. "I don't know, you'll have to ask your father" was a familiar refrain in my house as a kid, and I bet it was for you, too.
The problem with the real world is that, unlike the artificial world of the courtroom, that empty chair is going to have to be filled sometime. Notice I said "deflect" my employee's concerns, not "defuse."
The Board will eventually meet. Dad will come home, sooner or later. And if you don't watch out, you may find that you're the one filling the empty chair when all is said and done.