How do you manage to be an effective advocate without engaging in assholery — even when dealing with opposing counsel who do?
As the litigation side of my practice has taken off, the frequency of jerk lawyers I’ve encountered as opposing counsel has increased substantially. These people baffle me. I believe the focus should be on the merits of each side’s arguments rather than the personality of the advocates. When I’m dealing with such a person, my gut instinct is to ask, “What are you doing?” (I’ve never done it, but it’s tempting.)
There is a reason for the stereotype that lawyers are assholes, and I wish this behavior was not tolerated in our industry. It’s one thing when the client is an ass, and another when it’s their lawyer.
The Poll: How to Address Assholery
After dealing with my fair share of asshole lawyers this year, I was inspired to seek out input from other non-asshole lawyers. All of these lawyers were nominated by others and they were asked the same questions about how they manage to be effective advocates without acting like an ass — even when dealing with opposing counsel who are.
What Are Your Thoughts on the Idea That a Lawyer Can Be an Effective Advocate Without Being an Ass?
A lawyer is more effective when they focus on the facts or merits of the case rather than the biggest jerk in the room. If you choose to be a jerk, that lawyer draws unnecessary attention to themselves and distracts from the real issues. – Anonymous
Remember Ralph and Sam [from Looney Tunes]? Sam, a sheepdog, fervently protects a group of sheep that Ralph, a wolf, is tasked to, well, eat. If you recall, they would clobber each other. However, at the beginning and end of the day, they clocked out of work and collegially wished each other good morning and good evening.
That’s how I view my relationships with opposing counsel.
In sum, this is our job. It serves no one when we are assholes. Stick to the merits of the case. Represent your client zealously, but don’t forget to treat each other with respect. – Alejandro Pérez, Jaburg Wilk
I prefer to be friendly and accommodating in person and dominate my opponent in the courtroom through effective advocacy. I love this football analogy: Knock ’em on their ass on the field and then offer your hand to pick them up off the field. – Eric L. Toscano, Tenant Law Group
My style has always been to approach all opposing counsel with my honest assessment of my case and my legal arguments. Taking personal ownership of the case or your legal argument is not effective because it not only removes the objectivity but also in my opinion the civility of our practice. – Javier A. Puig, Lundmark, Barberich, LaMont & Slavin
What Is Your Advice or Idea for Curtailing Jerk Behavior by Lawyers?
I like to ask people who are misbehaving if they are “OK.” It is very disarming. Generally, they will explain why and calm down. You never know what else they are dealing with. – Ben J. Himmelstein, Radix Law
I try my best to pick my battles depending on what really affects my client. In the worst-case scenario, if I am against a difficult lawyer who misrepresents the conversations we have had, I have insisted that all communications be in writing. – Maria Crimi Speth, Jaburg Wilk
Everything comes down to having tact and making sure to be tough on issues and kind to people. As Winston Churchill said, “Tact is the ability to tell someone to go to hell in such a way that they look forward to the trip.” – Mitch Jackson, Jackson & Wilson
Other Thoughts You’d Like to Share?
I tend to see that the assholes don’t have rules on their side, so they rely on emotion. They get louder and louder, hoping to make enough noise to distract the judge or the jury from what the real issue is. When you are yelling, you are losing. – Shannon Peters, Law Office of Shannon Peters
As a criminal defense attorney, having the ability to separate the defense attorney from the alleged act by the defendant is the key to a professional opposing counsel relationship without assholery. – Michael Alarid III, The Law Office of Michael Alarid III
This Makes Me Feel Sad
In a perfect world, asshole tactics and behaviors would be discouraged in law school as well as in law firms and all places of employment. I’m reminded of a scene from “Patch Adams,” where Robin Williams’ character says, “You think you have to be a prick to get things done and you think that that’s a new idea.”
When I step back and take a deep breath after dealing with an asshole opposing counsel, I find it sad that they feel like they have to act this way.
I’ve wondered if the counterpoint to these interviews would be to solicit nominations for asshole lawyers and ask them why they do what they do. The results could be enlightening. What do you think?
Also on Attorney at Work …
- “Advice for Young Lawyers: Best Way to Deal With a Jerk”
- “Wheaton’s Law”
- “Handling Stress During a Prolonged Crisis”
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