By Katherine A. Marshall, Kopka Pinkus Dolin PC
I just got off the phone with a paralegal from opposing counsel’s office. She was calling to ask if we objected to another extension of time to respond to discovery. This would be the second extension. I told her that I’d check with the big boss, but I saw no problem. Relief was evident in her voice as she thanked me. After we hung up, I realized that I wasn’t angry about being asked for another extension. Twenty years ago, if I had gotten this call, I would have been icily polite on the phone. After hanging up, I would have been slamming things around, breaking phones, yelling about how DARE this counsel file this STUPID lawsuit and then FAIL to prosecute their claims, but now (as I’m a bit, older, rounder and wiser), I’m not even mad.
There’s an amicability in law that should exist, because we’re all human and we all have true issues that come up from time to time. Being amicable, tactful, truthful, and kind are excellent thing to remember when dealing with opposing counsel, co-counsel and in your own firm. We all know the counsel that are dilatory in our own little sections of the law – those people are distressing, but even they can be handled ethically and with no harm to your clients. You have to ask yourself: are you fussing because of something that will really go against an ethical line or your client’s best interests or guidelines? Or are you stomping around because you think it’s insulting to you when something doesn’t happen the way you thought it should? Don’t take it personally: it’s rarely about you. When it is, you will know.
Even if it is about you, have a little tact when dealing with other people. You know that the paralegal on the other side of the lawsuit is probably trying just as a hard as you are to resolve the issues and either settle the case or get it ready for trial. If you keep your client’s interests at the forefront and behave in an ethical manner, what harm does it do to be civil to one another? You can disagree on the merits of the case and still be kind. There’s a difference between calling someone a liar and stating your position. And, full disclaimer, I am the least tactful person that I know. I have put my foot into my own mouth so often I can tell you the subtle differences in flavoring in my socks. Shout out to Charlie Robinson and to Neil Bemenderfer for showing me how to be tactfully ethical when I was young(er), shiny(er) and new(er). Otherwise, someone probably would have killed me by now. I am 100% certain people have wanted to.
My lack of tact leads me to my next point: admit when you make a mistake. Be truthful. As the immortal Freddy Mercury sang, “Bad mistakes, I’ve made a few.” We are human. We make mistakes. It sucks. It hurts. It’s scary. But you must own it and own up to it. The last time I did not immediately admit to making a mistake, the consequences were swift, severe, and life-altering. And they should have been. The issue may seem trivial to you, but people have to be able to trust you and trust your word. We deal with the intimate details of peoples’ lives. We must be like Cesar’s wife: above reproach. When, not if, a mistake happens, take a breath and tell your boss you screwed up. There is almost always a solution. When there’s not, at least you can live with yourself a little better if you own the mistake and promptly tell the truth.
Finally, life is crazy in December and that goes double for most of us in the legal profession. Everyone wants to settle their cases, get them filed, or generally show that they have been working “all year long” on something. Sheesh; it’s like December never ends. Be forgiving when you can to people, because everyone is that busy. Everyone has a million things to finish and a million people to try and please. Forgive a little bit, when you can. Try to work a solution that won’t hurt your position/client/bottom line but that doesn’t make the other person cry. Because it’s the most wonderful time of the year, after all.
It doesn’t take much effort to be a little nicer, a little more kind and a little more upfront. It’s possible to be excellent, ethical, and kind, and yet still leave people (mostly) smiling.