In the last nine years of my life, I have spent a lot of time around lawyers in all different stages of their careers and practicing in all different manners. It may come as a surprise to some, but despite the nasty, cruel, and hilarious lawyer jokes, we’re all very different people with very different ideas about what it means to be a lawyer.
There does seem to exist, however, some similarities amongst those of us that litigate. If I were to list these similarities, they would be that we all have some sense of justice that motivates us, we tend to be a bit competitive (it can be very difficult to convince us we are wrong), and we have a strong sense of pride in our work, including the way we are perceived by the court, other lawyers, and our clients. Our reputation is vastly important to us and we spend our careers cultivating the image we want to portray.
Like members of a gang, lawyers do not tend to react well to slights, real or imagined. I might even go so far as to say that it’s that our egos and sense of pride that tends to make us disproportionately more unhappy than people in other professions. It might interest you to know with respect to lawyers dissing other lawyers, there is a code of understated lawyer-speak used in the courtroom to put another lawyer down without making bold obvious statements to the public who may be sitting in the gallery; this language is sure to get the other lawyer riled up and on edge.
In small towns, like Duncan, or small cities, like Nanaimo and Victoria, a lawyer’s reputation will grow and spread fast. Clients come and go, but the legal community changes much slower, hence our obsession with our reputations. One of the first questions a lawyer will ask their client is who represents the other side. Depending on who it is, it can help forecast how the litigation will proceed. It can mean the difference between quickly, effectively and successfully resolving a client’s file and knowing that litigation is going to continue for years.
Because of fantasy law shows, like Suits, when people look for a lawyer they often think they want someone hyper-aggressive who will win at all costs. News flash: just because you hire a hyper-aggressive lawyer, it does not mean the other side will simply give up and you will win. In all my years in the legal field (granted they are short), I have only ever met one client that may have enjoyed the litigation process. Even those clients who refuse to compromise and insist on fighting their legal battle until there is nothing left worth fighting for are distressed by the process and the cost associated with it.
My point is this: no one benefits from conflict. It is stressful, it is draining emotionally and financially, and you cannot move forward in your life until it is resolved. So what does that mean for you in choosing and instructing a lawyer? It’s true, you don’t want a lawyer that will allow the other side to walk all over you and give them the shirt off your back or bumble around and make things worse for you. But you similarly need to beware of hiring a lawyer that has a reputation for being hyper-aggressive, who will make the conflict worse ultimately guaranteeing you years of litigation because of his or her own perverse personality disorder.
The happiest clients I see are those that come with a problem, get advice about proceeding in different ways, ultimately choose to mediate their dispute, and then successfully resolve their dispute at mediation. The whole process takes one to two months. They’re in, they’re out, they move on with their lives. The unhappiest clients I see are those that get into the court process and set trial and hearing dates. They end up spending years wrangling with the other side between court hearings and are rarely pleased with the outcome.
When you are going through conflict and you’ve hired a lawyer, you must ask yourself, what are the real issues at the end of the day? What can you compromise on? Is your lawyer’s attitude fueling the conflict, building you up so that you cannot leave the conflict?
As I have said, most lawyers tend to be naturally competitive. We see a certain case and we feel we know how it should be resolved. There is a measure of pride that comes with proving ourselves right. Sometimes it is easier for our clients to walk away than it is for us to walk away, but to remain professional, in my opinion, it is imperative to keep our need to prove ourselves right away from our client’s legal matters.
Laurel Dietz practices family law and criminal defence with Dogwood Law Corporation in Victoria, B.C. Reasonable Doubt appears on Straight.com on Fridays. She can be followed on Twitter at twitter.com/UnbundledLawyer. You can send your questions for the column to its writers at firstname.lastname@example.org.