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An Open Letter to Young Litigators: The Importance of Following the Golden Rule

Mar 27, 2018 - News by

Working in the legal field, we have all met or will meet the lawyers that no one wants to work with, beside, or against. It is an unfortunate reality for any profession.  You were probably able to peg the members of your law school graduating class who will one day be those lawyers.

We are taught early on to be a strong advocate for our clients.  As such, it may appear beneficial to take a hardline stance on every issue, never budge on a deadline, or grant a continuance.  However, in the end, this attitude is generally counter-productive. At some point in time, every litigator runs into a situation where a continuance or extension to a deadline is required.  Your prior lack of compassion with a colleague may very well come back to haunt you later down the line.  

One of the most valuable and often overlooked skills you can bring to the table as a lawyer is the ability to build and maintain relationships with your fellow lawyers. Not only will this skill help make you a better attorney, but it can also aid you in getting your first job, a promotion or a beneficial lateral transfer to another firm.

In the litigation context, cooperative relationships with attorneys you work with and against will typically lead to the easy exchange of information and cordial agreements on procedure while avoiding unnecessary battles.  These unnecessary disputes can cost your client time and money, and can lead to added stress for you.  Cordial relationships can also help to resolve cases at earlier stages in litigation.  Take mediation for example.  If counsel for the parties are able to effectively communicate their clients’ legitimate expectations, then it is more likely that there will be fruitful and effective settlement discussions no matter how adverse the clients’ positions may be.

Alternatively, when counsel does not have a good relationship with other counsel it is much more likely that the client will see excessive costs and the attorney will suffer more personal headaches. If you have an ongoing spat with opposing counsel, it can quickly turn a simple case into a complicated, frustrating and expensive mess that keeps you up at night.

This does not mean that you should allow opposing counsel to abuse the professional courtesies that you extend. It is important to strike a balance between good solid advocacy and simply being a doormat. Even though you are required to zealously advocate for your client and not concede your clients’ interests, you can be an effective advocate while remaining professional in your dealings with the other attorneys involved in your case.  Civil litigation is not a zero sum game. That being said, there will be times when opposing counsel is unreasonable for no reason or because the nature of the case or clients place you at opposition from the outset.  During these occasions, patience and adherence to the Golden Rule will test even the most kind-hearted people.

While we are on this subject of patience being tested, young litigators brace yourselves for the bullies.  They are out there, and their favorite target is the young associate.  There will most certainly come a time when you will be yelled at, called names and derided for your advocacy.  I personally experienced this in open court recently when opposing counsel decided that he did not like the argument I put forth for my client.  The fact that it was a good argument and that I won only added fuel to the fire.  Sadly, this may very well happen again in the future.  If it should happen to you some day, it will be a credit to you and to our profession, if you avoid responding in kind.

There are many simple ways for young attorneys to build long lasting relationships.  Get out there and get to know counsel in your practice areas.  Find common ground with opposing counsel to foster rapport.  Take your opponent out for coffee and talk about your case.   You can also get to know counsel in your practice areas through local bar association events, charity work, or general networking.  When you find yourself opposing someone that you know personally, you will find that the case proceeds much more amicably and can oftentimes be resolved faster and with less expense. Obviously, meeting counsel in person at the outset of a case is not always feasible.  However, a simple phone call with introductions can set a case on the right path early on and allow for informal discovery.

We as attorneys have little to lose by engaging in positive professional relationships with our colleagues. Building good working relationships will foster beneficial results for you personally and professionally that will last a lifetime.

This article was first published in the Allegheny County Law Journal Civil Litigation Issue February 2017.