Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Law Practice Doesn't Have to Be Civil War

Leaving the Civil in Civil Litigation
illustration credit: usronline org
8 Tips on Becoming a Reputable Attorney
I recently had a nice chat with a fellow attorney who was venturing into criminal law. New to the field, she asked me for a little advice. Although the attorney practiced in my geographical area, I was quick to oblige.  After all, it was how I started out.  If I didn't know something, I wouldn't hesitate to ask questions from attorneys who were a bit longer in the tooth.  In fact, I am sure that I will be calling this attorney for some practical advice in the near future. It's a level of civility I wish more attorneys would make an effort to attain. 

To this day, I recall an incident that occurred while I was a bright eyed legal intern.  My sponsoring attorney was on his way to a deposition and took me along for the educational experience.  When we arrived, he introduced me to opposing counsel as a "law student learning the ropes."  He asked if it would be OK if I sat in to observe the proceedings.  Opposing counsel countered that if I could produce a law degree on the spot, I could sit and watch the deposition.  If I could not produce said degree, I should go wait in the car.   Opposing counsel failed to consider that "babies grow up to be cowboys."   As an attorney, I would eventually have the opportunity to take the guy on in court.  For some reason, I was inspired to mop the floor with him.  The exchange reminded me of an earlier post I did on the subject of civility.  (Editors note: Yes, I realize it is a repost.  In my defense, summer is usually regulated to re-runs anyway.  I should also add that my intros to reposts are usually longer than the majority of blog posts on other sites.  If you don't like it, you should go wait in the car).  I encourage you to add your own tips in our comments section.

First Tip. Avoid Being an Ass.
As a general practitioner, I have had the opportunity to run into a myriad of different types of lawyers. The majority of fellow bar members demonstrate civility towards me even as adversaries on opposing ends of a negotiating table. Whether it's agreeing to a continuance request or entertaining a settlement offer, I find most attorneys affable and willing to make an effort to work with me. As a young rookie, I always found veteran lawyers willing to share tips, answer questions and give a helping hand. Of course, not all attorneys are like this. As you read this, I am sure you may be thinking of your own particular nemesis. You know the one. Let's be frank, I am referring to that particular goat pimple that you would just love to take in camera and kick their actus reus up and down blackacre. I recently ran into one of these socially challenged baboons in divorce court. I had taken part in a civil matter where opposing counsel felt the need to constantly yell at me from day one. He had a reputation of foregoing civility to put on a show for his clients. Many considered him a bad attorney with a nice portfolio of sanctions to compliment the reputation. The kind of lawyer who would play a corpse or dress like a priest in order to sneak into a hospital. The kind of charlatan that would go to a bar to buy everyone a round of drinks only to later call the police as each patron left. "Hey, heard you got arrested, buddy? Need a lawyer?"

The guy was, for lack of a better term, a loudmouth jackass. (I believe that is the proper legal terminology for it). You may have run into a similar animal during your own legal adventures. These are the attorneys that counter sound legal arguments with sound. They throw tantrums, deny continuance requests and make needless motions to prolong litigation in order to increase billable hours. If you are reading this and you happen to fit this mold, please do me a favor. Look in the mirror and repeat "I am a jackass" twenty five times.

The following is the actual exchange from my first time meeting opposing counsel:

Ruggedly Handsome Young Attorney: "Hello counselor, it's a pleasure to meet you, I'm ........"
Curmudgeonly Old Goat: "I don't give a rat's ass who you are. Your client is a liar and a thief.  He would only hire a liar and a thief "

Did he just say "rat's ass"?  Did he just call me a liar and a thief?! (One of my clients often refers to me as his "liar", but I attribute that to his thick Eastern European accent.) I had never met this schlub before. Considering my client was in a wheel chair and was cheated on, I didn't take kindly to our first meeting . To be honest, my first reaction was to burst out laughing. Was this guy serious? It's supposed to be civil litigation. It was evident he was trying to intimidate me. I also immediately realized that he would try to transform this uncomplicated divorce into a costly drawn out Supreme Court case. In the coming months, the old goat bombarded me with a flurry of motions and unfounded accusations. Mundane issues (who should get the microwave) were fought tooth and nail. Minor disputes were the subject of frivolous motions and could have easily been resolved through a simple phone call. Now, I am not suggesting that one should not advocate fiercely for their client, but learn to pick your battles. Are you really helping your client when you want to bring the issue of who gets which piece of crap toaster before the judge? Hey, genius! There's @#%*& two of them. Get your client to pick one and let's move on.  Sweet sassy molassy......but I digress. 

Here are some tips on being a reputable member of the bar.

1. Be Civil. Some say civility is a dying art. We live in a world of cable news shows where commentators would rather shout down their guests rather than present a well thought out counterpoint. As attorneys, we are trained to advocate for our clients. That doesn't mean you have to yell your argument and drown your opponent in unnecessary motions. It may be a nice show for your client who is accustomed to the drama of tv attorneys, but it's frowned upon by judges who don't appreciate their docket being clogged with theatrics. As they say, you can catch more flies with honey. Show a little professional courtesy.

2.Be Like David Carradine in Kung Fu. Know when to pick your battles. Not everything has to be a fight. If opposing counsel asks for a matter to be rescheduled because his kid is sick, give him a break. We all have busy schedules and full case loads. Chances are you will need the return favor someday. Save your energy for the battles that matter.

3. Communicate A lack of communication is often the number one source of problems between lawyers and clients. Clear communication can be the key to a successful law practice. Explain things thoroughly to your client. Try your best to return calls and meet deadlines. Inform all interested parties when you run into a snag. In a similar vein, return calls and other communication as soon as you are able. If you can't return a phone call, have a staff member do it. CC your client on all correspondence. Determine your client's expectations early on. Are they being realistic? Make sure they are not holding back on information (especially in criminal matters and previous arrest history). As they say"an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure".

4. Be Honest: Lame excuses are easy to spot. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. If you failed to make a promise, be honest about it. Being forthright will only help your reputation as a stand up attorney.

5. Avoid Gossip . Try not to bad mouth opposing counsel and parties to your client. Common sense right? The legal community can be pretty tight knit. You never know who knows who. You don't want to plant the seed in your client's head that you can't keep a secret. You want them to view you as trustworthy. You don't want clients wondering if you are telling similar stories about them too. It's also a good habit not to swear around clients. Try to keep that image of the noble learned attorney in the mind of your client.

6. Don't Avoid Things: Most attorneys run into a client that can be a chore to deal with. The kind of client that makes you rethink your decision to practice of law. Sometimes it's better to bite the bullet. A quick phone call will bode much better for you. Avoiding phone calls will undoubtedly increase your client's anger and resolve to keep calling.

7. Document Everything. If you made a promise. If you made a call. Document it. It will save you from headaches and unncessary stress.

8. Take time for Yourself. With hectic caseloads, it's difficult not to live and breathe the law 24 hrs a day. Take a moment for yourself. Watch a non law related movie or tv show. Throw full beer cans at senior citizens walking at the mall, kick a small child. Whatever you do to relieve stress.  Have some tips to add, let us know


Anonymous said...

Congratulations on your law tribune article. Do you use these tips yourself?:)

Andrea Goldman said...

I enjoyed your post! Any chance you could e-mail this anonymously to Opposing Counsel for me? I have one whose behavior has been truly disgraceful.

Anonymous said...

I had the wonderful pleasure of working with the opposing counsel from hell in an extremely contentious divorce. I had to remind him more than once that this was not OUR divorce. Enough said.

Irene Olszewski said...

As lawyers, we should follow all of these rules on a regular and consistent basis. In order to maintain one's sanity in a very stressful profession, however, #8 is of particular importance. Even if taking time for yourself means closing the office an hour early on Friday afternoons and going home to do nothing ... do it! I have recently taken to closing the office on Fridays for the summer months to go camping with my family. It's amazing how that extra day off clears my head and increases my productivity when I return to the office on Mondays.

DUI Attorney Seattle said...

Very entertaining post. I think you had felt very bad as someone called you liar.

Dylan Hall said...

Good writing. Keep up the good work. I just added your RSS feed my Google News Reader..

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Unknown said...

Taking time for your self is important to retain your perspective. I believe that the second is tip here is to do not procrastinate–get it done and get it over with. Procrastination is the biggest stress inducer there is for a lawyer.

Additionally, do what you say and say what you mean–it will pay dividends and you can sleep well at night.
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Lauren Gottlieb said...

This was a truly incredible challenge and ideally I can go to the following one. It was alot of fun and I truly lived it up.. Bankruptcy Attorney Lakeland Fl

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