The best lawyering is calm and collected and encourages compromise.
I understand why people don’t like lawyers. And that’s saying an awful lot, because as my husband and many of my friends will tell you, I despise lawyer jokes and I am always unhappy about the lack of understanding of how big a role lawyers play in our society. We do good work a lot of the time. I love the law. I love using my knowledge to help improve lives.
But the fighting about every detail has to stop. There’s no point, no one wins from it, and we’ve got to find a better way. This past week, I spent hours of my life on unproductive calls with lawyers posturing about nothing. Those are hours I will not get back and I could have used them better.
I do get it. As lawyers, we are never allowed to be wrong. Your boss/partner/client doesn’t let you be wrong or they’ll never forget it. Everyone will know you made a mistake. Sound familiar? So instead of being wrong, or not knowing the answer, we posture, argue, and fight. It’s a natural defense mechanism. Some of you just fight because that’s what you think your job is. Newsflash — it’s not.
When I was a two years out of law school, I represented a manufacturer in a large multidistrict class-action matter. There were dozens of lawyers for the defense, and dozens of lawyers for the plaintiffs. One day, I attended a settlement conference on behalf of our client in Chicago. The meeting was held at the large law firm of one of the lead lawyers for the defense, there were at least 20 lawyers, and the room was NOISY. Everyone shouting at each other, and everyone talking over each other and nothing getting done. I was young and I didn’t know anyone other than from conference calls, so I sat back and watched.
Then this lead lawyer walked into the room. Let’s call him Mike.
Mike came in and walked to the end of the table, and in a normal voice asked everyone to sit down. As if Mike was Moses, the lawyer masses shut up and parted like the Red Sea. Plaintiffs went to one side of the room and defense attorneys to the other and everyone sat down and was quiet. In my 19 years of education, I had never seen anything like it. And I went to Catholic school where nuns smacked me with a ruler.
Mike was a lawyer for the defense, but he worked that room like he was a mediator. He sat down at the head of the table, the way your father does at holidays, and held court. He remained calm, laid out the situation, and invited both sides to provide input. When someone got heated on either side, he let them say their piece and then resumed the calm state. His energy permeated the room and the discussion stayed focused and rational. We didn’t settle the case that day, but we did make some great strides in understanding where both sides were coming from and we had legitimate information to take back to our clients. It was a win because of Mike.
That meeting was a turning point for me. I saw the power of how controlling your tone can control the entire tone of a room and I’ve used it to great effect ever since. I saw it again this week — lawyers sparring back and forth to no effect until a woman lawyer took the reins, stayed cool and calm in the face of disagreement, and agreed to disagree. It advanced the ball.
Our job for our clients is to protect their interests. Whatever form that takes — getting money after an accident, upholding their intellectual property rights, defending them criminally — it’s still the same. Disagreement is part of the game. If you agreed, you wouldn’t be on opposite sides. But fighting — raising your voice, taking untenable positions because you don’t want to let the other side win, being a jackass — doesn’t protect your clients’ interests. Take educated and informed positions. To do that, you have to be prepared. But stop covering up lack of preparation with stonewalling and pushing back. If you aren’t prepared, just say so. The world will not come to an end.
Discovery is prone to disagreements. The added complexity of eDiscovery and all the technical knowledge that is required provides more opportunities for lawyers to be unsure, unaware, and defensive. Recognize it, plan for it and be in control. Be prepared or acknowledge what else you need to do. When you stay calm, you let your mind stay focused on the task at hand and solutions to the difficult problems will come easier. Harken back to what your Mom always told you — fighting solves nothing.
If you’re still not buying it, go back and read All I Ever Needed to Know I Learned in Kindergarten again. It’s in there.
Do what Nike says. Be like Mike.