President's Column

President’s Column

Who Wants to Be a Mean Lawyer?

J. William Manuel

Article by J. William Manuel 2018 - 2019 CABA President


Is it just me, or is everyone yelling at everyone all the time around us? No matter your politics, you have to admit that the tone of public discussion has gotten a good bit more angry, as of late. For us lawyers, at times that can seem like heaping additional conflict on top of an already contentious job. But does being a lawyer have to entail being angry or grouchy with our colleagues to be effective? I’d like to say NO (in a very calm, and nice way, of course).

Our duties as attorneys sometime feel like we are professional soldiers or boxers----fight, fight, fight for our client’s side. The ACTUAL requirements of being a lawyer can be seen in the Mississippi Rules of Professional Conduct’s Preamble: “As advocate, a lawyer zealously asserts the client's position under the rules of the adversary system. As negotiator, a lawyer seeks a result advantageous to the client but consistent with requirements of honest dealing with others.” Please note that it doesn’t say “win at all costs” or “use a finishing move on the other side.” The Rule does ask us to be “zealous” but only if it is consistent with the rules and complies with being honest.

In my years of practice, I have unfortunately run into many lawyers who have interpreted “zealous” as being (at best) impolite and (at worst) down-right jackasses. Mean-spirited speaking objections at a deposition that imply that an opponent is stupid or incompetent. Venomous letters accusing another lawyer of hiding evidence or (even worse) milking a case solely to generate more fees. Belittling an attorney because of a misstep or misstatement. Although I don’t want to stereotype, many times these events have come from younger lawyers who apparently feel like angry language is the most effective way to get what they want.

Judges will constantly tell you that they despise hearing lawyers snipe at each other in court. One now-deceased wise judge used to always quote George Benard Shaw during lawyer squabbles: “I learned long ago, never wrestle with a pig. You get dirty and besides, the pig likes it.” I’m not saying don’t advocate your side of the case---just do it without personal insults and sarcastic asides. A truly effective advocate can slice you to shreds while never raising their voice or imputing the other side’s character.

Besides, we all already know that our profession is one of the most stressful in the country. Why add to it by amping up the conflict for no reason? Some of my best lawyer friends are ones with whom I’ve done battle across the aisle. We can tackle both sides of a thorny legal issue and then go get barbeque for lunch afterwards. That’s what real professionals do. Organizations like CABA also help with us by allowing us to socialize in a forum where we aren’t attacking each other. You get to know your current and future opponents as real human beings, not just angry words on a page.

So what to do with the mean lawyer on the other side? Don’t wrestle the pig! Follow the teaching of Buddha: “Be kind to unkind people. They need it most.” Resist the urge to respond with an acerbic email. Take a break during the deposition or hearing to cool things down. Tell them you respect their position, but kindly disagree. Then invite them to the CABA Christmas Social or our next membership meeting!