Vol. 84, No. 2, February 2011
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 of 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 okay 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.
Adrian M. Baron is a partner in the Law Firm of Podorowsky Thompson & Baron, with offices in Hartford and New Britain, Conn. This item first appeared in The Nutmeg Lawyer, chosen as one of the ABA Journal’s Top 100 Legal Blawgs for 2010. Known for its snarky humor, the blog shares tips on law firm marketing, office management, and other trials and tribulations of law practice. Check out http://thenutmeglawyer.blogspot.com. Contact the author at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Here are some tips on taking the “war” out of legal practice.
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 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 TV drama, but this behavior is frowned on by judges who don’t appreciate their dockets being clogged with theatrics. As they say, you can catch more flies with honey. Show a little professional courtesy.
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.
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 communications as soon as you are able. If you can’t return a phone call, have a staff member do it. Copy 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).
Be honest. Lame excuses are easy to spot. Sometimes life throws you a curve ball. If you failed to keep a promise, be honest about it. Being forthright will only help your reputation as a stand-up attorney.
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 clients’ heads that you can’t keep a confidence. 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.
Don’t avoid unpleasant tasks or clients. Most attorneys run into a client who can be a chore to deal with, the kind of client that makes you rethink your decision to practice 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.
Document everything. If you made a promise, a phone call, or took some other action, document it. It will save you from headaches and unnecessary stress.
Take time for yourself. With hectic caseloads, it’s difficult not to live and breathe the law 24 hours a day. Take a moment for yourself to relieve stress. Do something that is not related to the law – watch a movie or TV show, take a walk, play with your children.
Editor’s Note: In this month’s President’s Message, page 5, State Bar President Jim Boll laments society’s need to relearn civility and, with the Professionalism Committee, promotes professionalism among Wisconsin attorneys.