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LAWBIZ COACHES CORNER: Steer away from ‘road rage’ in the law office

Ed Poll is a speaker, author and board-approved coach to the legal profession. He can be contacted at edpoll@lawbiz.com. Also visit his interactive community for lawyers at www.LawBizForum.com.

A Google search of “road rage” uncovered almost 90 million entries; boat rage, 24 million; air rage, 4 million; and grocery store rage — yes, you read that right, grocery store rage — 3 million.

Clearly, people nowadays get inflamed pretty easily.

But there’s no place for rage in the law office. Rage could cost you clients, partners, and even cases. In the business of law, civility should be your driving force.

In recent years, many state and local bar associations have adopted voluntary professionalism goals and standards that attempt to discourage “unprofessional conduct” and encourage “civility” for lawyers engaged in litigation. Typically, these codes are not mandatory, and noncompliance carries no sanctions.

In Canada, on the other hand, where civility is highly valued, the Canadian Bar Association’s Code of Professional Conduct specifically states in Rule IX, Chapter 16:

“The lawyer should at all times be courteous, civil, and act in good faith to the court or tribunal and to all persons with whom the lawyer has dealings. … Legal contempt of court and the professional obligation outlined here are not identical, and a consistent pattern of rude, provocative or disruptive conduct by the lawyer, even though not punished as contempt, might well merit disciplinary action.”

The obvious question, though, is why is this something that is even a problem in our profession? Why do some of us feel the need to be rude and obnoxious to our adversaries, clients, and/or partners?

In the courtroom, do we truly believe that such conduct will win us points or cause our client’s position to be moved forward? On the contrary, such behavior often merely entrenches the opposition further.

Being nice, courteous, and kind requires neither that we be a doormat nor that we cave in to our adversary’s position. We can stand firm in advocating our client’s interest and position yet still be civil and nice.

Incivility has other ramifications, too. Consider client relations. Clients, like all people, prefer to patronize the businesses that they like. Doctors receive training about developing “bedside manner” and treating patients with “compassionate care.” Unfortunately, law schools don’t teach lawyers how to interact with clients or learn what is most important to clients. Rather, law schools teach that the lawyer is supposed to order, and the client is supposed to obey, sometimes called “client control.” The result too often is unpaid bills and disciplinary claims.

Several years ago, I heard Marshall Goldsmith, who coaches more than 50 of the top 100 CEOs of corporate America, make some observations that all lawyers should take to heart:

  • What we do at home, we do at the office, and vice versa. In other words, if we are unkind to our colleagues, our staff, and our adversaries, we’re probably exhibiting the same behavior to our spouses and our children.
  • Trying too much to win can hold successful people back. Generally, we’re successful because we’re competitive. Being competitive, we win. But if we don’t know when to stop and have to come out on top even in little things, then the effort can be counterproductive or hurtful.
  • Destructive words like no, but, and however discount the value of other people and their ideas. By merely saying thank you, we can create and maintain relationships with significantly greater results for all involved.

In the practice of law, we should never forget that we are dealing with human lives. Our goals should be to bring a sense of order to troubled situations, to communicate honestly and directly about the legal and human difficulties involved, and to maintain full respect for everyone with whom we deal.

The law cannot be a profession unless we ourselves maintain professionalism.

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