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Memphis, Tennessee, United States
Small town paralegal in the city. Once ran a law office, now being run by one. Med mal defense litigation. I think it's growing on me.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Naughty or Nice?

Several days ago, Lynne DeVenny at Practical Paralegalism asked "Who's the nice one on your legal team?" On my team, it's me. I admit that I need to grow teeth in some areas, but I also enjoy that legal work requires a sense of professionalism and civility. To me, lawyers act as a sort of buffer for the client. Their job is to advocate vigorously, but to focus on their legal strategy, not to begin personal feuds with opposing counsel.

Ideally, two attorneys should be able to meet in court (or on some other field of play), argue their points, and shake hands amicably at the end of the matter. Ideally, it is not the best arguer or the most sarcastic voice, but rather the strongest legal argument that wins. When someone gets personal in an argument, the only thing I hear is that my rival is losing his message.

Still, many lawyers (and their staff) get caught up in the moment and spew viciousness that goes beyond the argument to the person. I've seen it in letters prospective clients have brought in from other attorneys. I've seen it in letters other lawyers have written us. I have even found it in court filings.

Now, I partially understand the purpose of being rude and intimidating in letters to the lay opposition, though I cannot in good sense commend it. I suppose those who engage in it believe that the meaner the letter, the more likely the debtor is to respond out of fear. In my own experience, the best way to get a debtor or defendant to pay up or to contact you to work out a deal is to be very nice. The people who generally pay quickest and easiest or call immediately to work out a deal are those who believe we at the law firm are good people just looking out for our clients' interests. If we put them on the defensive, they tend to disappear.

I even understand sending opposing counsel a harsh letter every once in awhile, although the most effective negative letters are the ones that focus only on the merits (or lack thereof) of the case. It seems counterproductive to me to make opposing counsel angry because in that case you are even more unlikely to work out a settlement or come to agreements on a variety of other issues that will arise during the course of the case. Besides, the legal community is so small, you will likely work with or against that person again. Even if you don't, word gets around. It is much better to be known as the nice guy who advocates professionally than someone "I wouldn't turn my back on."

Even worse, though, it makes no sense to me to place snide comments in a court filing for the Judge to read. I highly doubt judges enjoy reading such distracting and embarrassing garble. Sure it feels good to be snide sometimes, but that is why they made the Delete key. Type it out, feel the anger, then delete and enter something professional and seemly. Or hand your draft to a co-worker who will nice it up for you. When a motion or response is riddled with ridicule, it is nearly impossible to trust the author's argument and sincerity. It is also unprofessional to attempt to make the other side look bad just for the sake of making the other side look bad. This can backfire in so many ways. Besides, the best way to make the other side look bad is to win the argument through intelligent research and skilled argument.

So when it comes to being naughty or nice, I choose nice. Respect is not earned through fear or intimidation, but through proven proficiency.


  1. Mel, another thoughtful post. Of course, civil and professional is the recommended course of action - always. I've seen some attorneys get read the riot act by judges over inappropriate remarks made in court documents. And I've seen some horrific correspondence from opposing counsel. But you can still send a strongly worded letter advocating for your client - without being unprofessional. And it's great to write with someone who can tell you if you're coming on too strong - or not strong enough.

  2. Great post Mel. I worked for one attorney who use to say "you catch more flies with honey...." This attorney had a knack for always settling his cases and everyone always came out "happy" at the end. From him I learned that civility goes a very long way. He was alway professional and always able to get his point across without being rude to the adversary and every one liked working with him. I considered myself very lucky to be his paralegal.