We rise and fall in our profession largely based upon our reputation. This concept is instilled in us from the time we walk into law school (or hopefully before) and will be repeated throughout our careers. So if that is the truth, why are so many lawyers downright mean?
The reputation of lawyers among the community can be less than stellar at times. This should come as no surprise to anyone. Upon entering the legal community I had anticipated this, and I also anticipated finding this reputation to be undeserved, and exaggerated. For the most part I have found lawyers to be a very good natured group, however, it did not take me long to find examples of lawyers who had very much deserved the reputation of being mean, nasty, and impossible to get along with. These examples need not be explored in detail here because we have all seen these lawyers and felt the fire coming from their mouth. But suffice it to say that this behavior and attitude can often go well beyond what would be tolerated in typical business, and definitely beyond the discourse of civil society.
So if our reputation is so important to our future why then do many lawyers feel it is ok, or even in their best interests, to be so mean with clients, other lawyers, and even judges? For many I think the answer is that they believe this is how a “good” lawyer comes across, for others it is how they try to make up for a lack of understanding (the louder I yell the less questions I get), and still for others it is quite simply their natural state of being (if they were a cab driver they would be an angry cab driver).
Despite these reasons for a lawyer to be willing to lash out, many experts point to the destructive nature of this attitude on a lawyer’s career and reputation. In a recent Lawyers Weekly article written by Geoff Kirbyson, a trio of veteran lawyers stated that “Lawyers can be human bulldogs, fearless and often ruthless in the pursuit of getting what’s right for their clients. But if they want to optimize their efforts,… they should heed their mothers’ advice and be nice.”. Crossing over to the dark side not only will “harm your own reputation but it harms your client’s best interests,” says Bob Sokalski, a partner at Winnipeg-based Hill Sokalski Walsh Trippier.
For me this point of being civil and professional while advocating for the issue you have at hand was driven home in a very powerful way by Randy Kinnard, a veteran lawyer from middle Tennessee. I met Randy at a Tennessee Bar Association leadership breakfast where he was the guest speaker. I had expected a routine talk, while I tried to get my fill of mini blueberry muffins, scrambled eggs, and coffee. What I got was a testimony that convinced me that there is but one good way to be a professional lawyer, and it didn’t involve using the phrases “jackass” or “bonehead”. Here is a recap of what Randy shared with us that morning.
Randy served in combat in Vietnam. He lost many friends in the war, including 29 college classmates. After two tours in Vietnam, he went to law school. He didn’t know it at the time, but Randy had a significant case of survivor guilt and resulting anger issues. When he started practicing law, he found himself often highly frustrated at adverse counsel in his trial work and easy to anger. He learned that his anger only got in the way of good relations and his best professional work. So, through much self-help and counseling, Randy learned methods of dealing with anger and how to avoid getting angry in the first place. He now lectures widely across the country to fellow lawyers on the subject of respect and how not to get angry. His best teaching point is this: When you feel yourself starting to get angry, stop. Breathe. Breathe some more, before you say or do anything else. This pause can help you see that getting angry is not going to help anything, but will only make matters worse.
Randy’s ability to control his anger allows him to deal more effectively with adverse counsel. It allows him to be patient with clients and judges. And it gives him an opportunity to listen carefully to others. He has learned that listening, instead of talking, is the best way to get valuable information, and that translates to a higher level of success.
(Let me go ahead and say that this recap does very little justice to how Randy tells the story himself…there were many people wiping away tears by the time he was done talking. So if you ever get a chance to hear him speak, run don’t walk to that meeting.)
In the end we all are faced with a decision like Randy described, where we have to come to terms with what reputation we are going to build and work under. While it may be easy to excuse bad behavior as a trait of the profession, I feel it is just that…an excuse for bad behavior. And while the profession of law may have been a safe haven for such behavior in the past it should not give us, as new lawyers and law students, a pass on our duty to be positive, helpful, encouraging, and … well, professional. In the time since I heard Randy speak I have had many occasions to feel frustrated and angry about issues in court and out of court. I have also had occasion to encounter other legal professionals acting less than professional. However, I have been able to remember that people are always watching how you react and holding you accountable to those reactions. I remind myself that my goal, as much as to be successful in my career, is to be seen as a person of character and professionalism. I further remind myself that the winning can’t come at the expense of my reputation; after all I’m in this for the long haul. So I try to take that deep breathe, breathe again, and play nice.
Special thanks to Randy Kinnard for letting me use his story to discuss this topic.