Posted on: 10/28/2011
Mike H. Bassett, The Bassett Firm
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Although likely a rhetorical question, as an attorney practicing primarily as a litigator, have you experienced the following scenario? Every conversation (at least from opposing counsel's end) seems to spiral into venomous words and threats. His or her every letter or e-mail drips with sarcasm—or anger. Counsel views depositions as "acts of war." In short, we've all experienced a litigation that was exhausting—mentally and physically.
Such interactions do not necessarily have to result in a complete waste of time. They remind us—yet again—that we can have a professional relationship even with the most difficult lawyers. Here are the five things I remind myself every time I am forced to communicate with such a lawyer.
Seek first to understand.
There is a reason that this type of lawyer is so unprofessional. Why? Because such unprofessional behavior has "worked" for him or her before. Think about it—if you act a certain way and get the intended result, are you not likely to act the same way in the future?
It is only human nature to want to react to such attorneys and to "teach" them a lesson. A better practice is to try to first put yourself in the other person's shoes. Maybe they are coming off of a difficult divorce. Maybe they are dealing with family issues. Maybe they are facing something in their life that would make anybody difficult to deal with. Knowing these things can go a long way in getting past outrageous behavior.
What people say about you may say more about them than it does about you.
I learned this lesson long ago from a retired Catholic bishop, and life and my professional career have proven it to be true. It goes hand in hand with a saying I heard years ago: "Hurting people hurt others." If you are dealing with lawyers whose actions and words are vindictive rather than professional, you might remember that, deep down, they are likely hurting for some reason. It probably has nothing to do with you. It probably has nothing to do with the lawsuit you have with them. But it's something that's deeply troubling them and causing them to lash out. And what they say about you really says more about them than it does you.
It's all about respect.
Over the years I have found that many lawyers are frightened and act out of fear. What they are looking for, at the end of the day, is respect from other lawyers. But how do you show respect to rude lawyers? Don't interrupt. Let people say what they need to say. Look them in the eye. Acknowledge their feelings. You can disagree with them, but don't be disagreeable. Use "I statements," as opposed to "you statements." For example: it's better to say, "I feel as though you are talking down to me when you say . . . ," is much better than saying, "You are such an idiot when you say . . . ." Which approach do you think is going to get you further down the road in getting along with somebody?
Difficult lawyers are looking for you to hook into their anger/anxiety/fear. If they raise their voice and then you raise your voice, then they have you where they want you. They have probably thrown you off your game and will then get what they want.
The better practice? Don't engage. If someone raises their voice, lower yours. If someone is speaking forcefully on the phone or in person, don't talk until they finish. I can think of one lawyer that had the habit of raising his voice and yelling and saying mean things about my staff. The first time he did it, it took me by surprise. The second time he did it; I let him finish and then told him that I was going to hang up and we could talk again when he wasn't so angry. I had to do it a third time, but after that, he understood that his tactic wasn't going to work with me. As a result, we got beyond whatever fear or anger he was working with and worked quite well together. In fact, we are becoming good friends.
Finally, be the change that you want to see in the world.
I love this encouragement from Gandhi. If you are looking for lawyers to be respectful to you, be respectful to them. As somebody once told me, "To have friends, you have to be a friend." The same is true with lawyers.
To have lawyers treat you with respect, you need to treat them with respect. To have lawyers return your calls, you have to return calls. To have lawyers live up to the promises they make, you have to live up to the promises that you make. It is so easy to look to everybody else and think that they need to change and conform to your view of the world. You might be amazed what happens if you take responsibility for your behavior and watch what happens to the behavior of those around you.
So, there they are—five attitudes or approaches that will help you get along with difficult lawyers. Try to figure out what is boiling in the other person's pot. The ugly words they say about you are really a deep reflection of what's going on in their lives. Treat everybody with respect. Don't engage negative behavior. Finally, be the change that you want to see in others. Here's to healthy, professional relationships!
Practicing law for twenty-four years, Mike H. Bassett is a Senior Partner with The Bassett Firm in Dallas, Texas, and is a member of DRI's Lawyers' Professionalism and Ethics Committee.