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Find yourself feeling irritated? Frustrated? Downright grind-your-teeth angry? Maybe you skipped breakfast. And lunch. Maybe your spouse was nasty to you at dinner last night. Maybe you can’t stand the way opposing counsel flagrantly misinterprets the law while jabbing his finger in the air. Maybe you’ve been deliberately made the scapegoat for another attorney’s huge mistakes.
Perhaps you have 100 different reasons, both legitimate and exaggerated, that have combined to create a swirling hot cloud of steam roiling between your ears, just waiting to blow. And, just as your cloud of steam reaches its peak, an unleashing opportunity presents itself — a pivotal hearing, an important motion, a phone call or email with a particularly loathsome adversary.
Dragon-like, you unleash and bellow fire. Or wicked sarcasm.
Or you whisper pointed insults.
Whatever your personal brand of communicative poison, you’ve crossed the line of civility. Afterward, when you leave the courthouse, end the phone call or storm away from the negotiating table, you might regret what you just did. Or you might not.
But you should.
Besides the fact that upholding professionalism and civility is the honorable and right thing to do as a member of the bar, here are a few more reasons why you absolutely should keep your cool.
You never know where you will want to go. Today you might be content with your current circumstances and figure that your civility lapses do little damage, but life has a way of unfolding in the most unexpected ways. Tomorrow you might want to switch firms, try a new practice area or even run for office. To successfully navigate any of these moves, you will need supporters. You will need individuals from a broad range of positions and perspectives who are willing to publicly sing your praises. It will be challenging to find those folks outside of your inner circle if you are known as a discourteous hothead. Imagine your dejection upon receiving tepid responses or carefully crafted excuses to your requests for an endorsement or support. Ouch.
Your unprofessionalism will earn some good laughs. No matter how provoked or justified you may have felt, or how masterfully you executed the cutting blow, not all witnesses will agree with your interpretation of events. Stories of your misdeed will be told, sometimes with you cast as the villain, and (perhaps worse) sometimes with you cast as the buffoon. Clearly, the target of your incivility will be angry. But others who witnessed your transgression may be amused instead, and gleefully relate the story around the watercooler to some good laughs. Acting like the consummate professional simply isn’t as gossip-worthy or funny.
Reputations are easy to tarnish and laborious to polish. It’s a sad fact that one slip-up has more impact on your reputation than the 10 prior instances of stellar conduct. For whatever reason, in both reputations and relationships, the bad tends to outshine the good. Debits are long-lasting and far-reaching while it takes three times as many credits to have the same effect. So be wary and be careful. It’s far better to walk away, end the conversation or wait to send that email than pay the heavy reputation price that will take a lot of labor to polish away.
It’s better to feel bigger. Being in control always trumps the adrenaline-spiked alternative. Mastering your emotions and acting professionally no matter what the circumstances feels good. And once you’ve successfully accomplished maintaining civility under fire, it gets a bit easier each time. If you know a certain person or topic pushes your buttons, mentally prepare yourself in advance and make it your priority to emerge from the interaction not as the “winner,” but to emerge with dignity and grace. Being the bigger person isn’t always easy, but the rewards, both internal and external, are more far-reaching and impactful than you might think.
Ryan Sullivan has been a trial lawyer for almost 14 years, practicing exclusively indigent criminal defense. Ryan is also a speaker, writer and trainer. She believes a sense of humor and the ability to frame events positively, combined with solid professional skills, leads directly to career and business success. Her experience working and training others in challenging careers has given her the skills to manage the toughest customers, speak and present persuasively, and shine under stressful circumstances. Ryan and her husband have three children, three dogs and a home suspended in a perpetual state of DIY remodeling.
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