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Bite Your Tongue!

By Sandy Atwood

You might think the gift of the gab is an essential skill for a successful lawyer. And it’s true that knowing how to think fast on your feet and verbalize points quickly and understandably can be important qualities. But it can be just as important to learn when to simply keep your mouth shut. A lawyer who never learns how to bite his or her tongue may have a very short and unsuccessful career.

Know When to Listen

Learning how to bite your tongue and listen is a must when you become a lawyer. Perhaps the most obvious time to simply be quiet is when you are having a conversation with a more senior attorney—particularly if that person is the one handing out assignments or signing your paycheck. Of course, if you disagree with a point made by the other person, there is nothing wrong with courteously and professionally expressing your opinion. However, you need to learn when to do so, and when to simply drop it. Constantly arguing with and contradicting your seniors is a good way to find yourself in the unemployment line.

Take Time to Consider Your Argument

It’s important to think before you speak during private conversations with your coworkers, of course, but it’s especially important during a consultation with a client or a court hearing. If you feel the need to express your thoughts or opinions, wait to do so until the appropriate time—in private. Piping up the moment a thought pops into your head can make your team look weak and divided in front of the client, judge, opposing council and other onlookers.

Learn to Control Emotions

Maintaining a steely silence or exchanging a knowing glance toward your opposition or even your client can be every bit as effective as your words. Never underestimate the power of body language. Even if you are fuming inside, sometimes it is best to maintain a dignified silence and be careful not to reveal what you are really feeling through obvious physical signs. Many an argument has been won by simply holding out longer than the other person before speaking. Practice this tactic when haggling for a big-ticket item in a store and watch the salesperson step in to break the pause in conversation with a better offer. Best to hone your skills in the art of controlling a conversation outside of the office or courtroom—it will give you maximum confidence when it really matters.


There are exceptions to all of these rules, of course. One example—hopefully not a common situation—is if you witness someone in your firm, even a senior member, doing something that appears unethical or illegal. In this case, of course, you should speak up. When the real issue, however, is your ego, not your ethics, then bite your tongue!

Sandy Atwood studied law at UC Berkeley and completed her masters in International Business Law at the University of Singapore. She is now working with She is fascinated by the contrast in business cultures from country to country and how misunderstandings in cultures often lead to conflict. She is concerned that young law graduates are only schooled in more traditional applications of law and in her articles she enjoys giving them career advice on its more diverse aspects.

Illustration © ImageZoo.

Categories: Daily Dispatch, New Lawyers, Professional Development, Professionalism
Originally published July 30, 2012
Last updated April 19, 2018
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