Fairness and efficiency matter. They’re core concepts in our legal system. For the average person, fairness and efficiency are the yardsticks used to measure all judicial outcomes. So it’s quite easy for us to overlook the importance of procedure–the importance of rules. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer drew attention to just that point in his concurring opinion to LTC Properties v. Licking County Board of Revision.

The case itself was a straightforward property-tax dispute. The Licking County Auditor appraised an assisted-living property at $1.8 million. The owner thought it was worth $1.0 million. The difference came down to whether the property should be valued as a hospital or an apartment complex. On the merits–the fairness of it–Pfeifer said, “I am sympathetic to the property owner in this case. The valuation method used by the auditor … is questionable.”

But the property owner lost.

Pfeifer describes why, and explains why this case is a “cautionary tale”:

All property owners and their counsel know that they have a heavy burden to overcome when challenging a valuation. So why, as in this case, make the situation worse by ignoring simple and obvious requirements? Continuances are routinely granted in tax cases, but not when the party seeking the continuance disregards well-established procedure, such as requesting the continuance in a timely fashion and disclosing its witnesses and exhibits. And if a corporate entity wants to challenge a valuation, it should send a certified appraiser or other qualified expert, not an employee, however experienced. It is well known that the only nonexperts competent to testify as to valuation are owners. Finally, the best way to challenge a valuation is with a proper appraisal, which was not submitted in this case. Little wonder that the property owner was unable to establish that the board of revision abused its discretion.

As you’ve likely been able to decipher, the property owner made a string of self-defeating procedural mistakes. These mistakes were avoidable. And they ultimately cost the owner its case, not to mention a bundle in extra taxes. And what’s true of this property-tax dispute is equally true of all litigation. Procedure matters. Procedural missteps can cause tactical damage, and even lose a case.

Procedural rules have been simplified over the past century, but remain subtle and incredibly complex. Lawyers, who bill for their time and have little to show for it apart from a stack of dull paperwork, are often questioned as to where their value lies. It lies in counsel, of course. And in planning. Disaster avoidance. Deal making. But in no small part, the value of a good lawyer lies in mastery of the convoluted and arcane rules that can make the difference between success and disaster. The flashy stuff is great, but no matter how well you negotiate, how hard you litigate, or how many facts are in your corner, at the end of it all, procedure matters.