a curmudgeon's perspective

High Five the Legal Profession

By | Sep.20.11 | Curmudgeon's Perspective, Daily Dispatch, Ethics

When my kid played soccer, there was a ritual at the end of every game. Each team would line up single-file, facing in opposite directions, then walk by the entire other team and slap each kid’s hand as a show of good sportsmanship—regardless of who had won. I still see vestiges of this practice among lawyers at the end of a trial or negotiation, but the spirit is definitely in decline.

In talking with other lawyers, my sense is that (in the good ol’ days) we used to have a greater sense of professional respect among colleagues. Today, we see each other more as enemies than peers. We take our legal disputes more personally and our conflicts go beyond the walls of the courtroom. I don’t see a lot of frank discussion around the bar or in the media, but I do see lots of games and misinformation and outright unethical behavior. I know it’s old news, but the profession has lost its dignity. We have lost it. And I wonder if we are becoming our culture’s self-fulfilling prophecy: Obsessed with money and sex and winning at any cost.

Remember debate teams? Remember trial skills training? We demonstrated virtuosity by first taking one side of the argument, and then the other. As advocates, that is our job—to bring our advocacy skills to the question, not our artillery. Not our rage. Disparaging the other “side” not only makes the lawyers’ lives miserable, it demeans the entire profession.

I don’t know what it would take to change things across the profession, but here’s the brief lecture I give myself from time to time:

  • Remain objective. Winning or losing doesn’t define your professionalism. Winning is much better than losing, but not at any cost.
  • Model mutual respect. Accept and respect the lawyers on the other side as professionals (even if they aren’t). Civility doesn’t cost much, but it can send a powerful message.
  • Do your job, and do it well. Be prepared, spend the time necessary and do your homework. Feel good about your work, whether you won or lost. In college, we had a team prayer before our football games. Coach would say, “Don’t pray for victory. Pray to play well and the game will take care of itself.”
  • Make your mother proud. Don’t rely on tricks and games to win your case. Imagine your mom or grandmother in the audience. Would they be proud of you?
  • Don’t be a stranger. It’s easy to de-humanize your opponent, so get to know them. Sometimes it’s harder to disparage someone if you know them as a person. (Yes, there are exceptions).
  • Like Alice, keep your head. Use that passion to drive home your points, not to drill opposing counsel into the ground. Winning is good, but not worth selling your soul for.
  • Sometimes you lose. Get over it. Somebody loses a football game in front of 70,000 screaming fans every Friday or Saturday (and Sunday and Monday and Thursday) night.
  • Win or lose with grace. Some cases are winners, some not. Your job is to give your best to the client, the profession and the law. With dignity, honesty and compassion.

Let’s polish up our profession and raise, not lower, our standards. Maybe, just maybe, we can learn from the example of those nine-year-old soccer kids.

Otto Sorts has been reading law since before Martindale met Hubbell. Of Counsel at a large corporate firm that prefers to remain anonymous, Otto is a respected attorney and champion of the grand tradition of the law. He is, however, suspicious of “new-fangled” management ideas and anyone who calls the profession the legal “industry.” When he gets really cranky about something he blogs at Attorney at Work.

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