Professionalism, ethics, collegiality and civility in the legal profession are essential to a successful, reputable, and fulfilling career. Many lawyers, however, lose sight of these fundamental principles along the way. It is therefore important, especially as a new lawyer, to ensure that such principles are integral to your day-to-day practice from the beginning. Whether as a transactional attorney or a litigator, we are all ethically obligated to zealously represent our clients’ interests. The law is also a stressful profession. Given these realities, it is exceedingly easy to lose track of our equally important responsibilities to each other and to the bar, especially when those around us may be losing track. We cannot lose sight of the importance of interacting with our fellow attorneys with courtesy, dignity and respect, and honoring our obligations as officers of the court. Indeed, while, at first blush, there may appear to be a tension between zealous advocacy and the stress of our work, on the one hand, and collegiality, on the other, a commitment to professionalism, in practice, will result in better outcomes for clients, and make the practice of law more pleasant and fulfilling, and less stressful for us all. Balancing these imperatives can be particularly difficult for new lawyers because, despite the many eponymous courses in law school, there is no real way to teach professionalism. How to maintain professionalism can only be learned through experience and example. Below are some helpful guidelines for new lawyers, or really all lawyers, to consider in our quest to achieve and maintain the high standards necessary to develop a successful legal practice and foster collegiality and civility in the bar.
1. Be prepared. Always, always show up prepared. There is no excuse or alternative. Our occupation demands it. Preparedness invites respect, professionalism, and ultimately success. Especially as a new lawyer, you are demonstrating to opposing counsel that you are ready, willing, and able to stand where you are standing, regardless of how high your BBO number may be. In turn, counsel will see you more as an equal and not some “newbie” to strong arm, intimidate, or take advantage of, because we all know that these tactics do and will happen from time to time.
2. Be confident. If you are prepared, you should be confident. Demonstrating confidence goes a long way in front of your clients, opposing parties, and other counsel. If opposing counsel knows you are prepared and confident in your position, he or she is more likely to treat you with respect and acknowledge an equal playing field, no matter what the age difference or varying experience level may be between you. This will lead to more productive interactions and ultimately resolutions.
3. Be Patient. Patience is definitely a virtue in our profession. It can be so difficult to take a step back or bite your tongue when you are not being treated professionally. Everyone will experience that lawyer in their career who will be just downright awful to them. It is in these situations where you take a deep breath and respond in a professional and civil manner (and then just walk away when need be). There may be times when you do need to leave the situation to give everyone a breather, but always do so with your head held high. There is no sense in rushing things with an angry opposing counsel on the other side who is being “overly zealous.” Likewise, even if another attorney sends an objectively offensive email, or otherwise acts offensively, do not react out of anger – always wait until you have calmed down to respond.
4. Hold your ground. You are retained by your client to counsel and advocate for them. You know what is best for your client and you know the goals you are trying to accomplish. Always advocate in a respectful and courteous manner, even if the other side in not playing the same way. Such bullying tactics are used many times on new lawyers to intimidate them to back down or not speak their position. Always hold your ground and it will make it difficult for other lawyers to prevent you from being the best possible lawyer you can for your client.
5. Take the high road. It can be so difficult not to take the bait when another lawyer is being discourteous or just plain obnoxious. An objective from day one of your practice should always be to never compromise when it comes to professionalism. Never compromise your integrity, respect, beliefs, or standards. It is okay to compromise your legal position – that is what lawyers do to resolve cases - but never compromise your fundamental values as a lawyer or a person in this profession.
6. Know when you are over your head. Unfortunately, we may find ourselves in a situation that we cannot handle on our own, especially as a new lawyer. Always know when to reach out to a colleague, partner, or mentor for sound advice on how to handle a situation or another lawyer. They will be happy to help, it will result in a better outcome, and you will learn from the experience and wisdom you are being offered.
7. Be Human. Believe it or not, lawyers are people too. There are times when other lawyers, including adversaries, are having a difficult time, either professionally or personally. It could be a difficult client, colleague, decision, or something outside of the office. Always be compassionate, reasonable, and understanding because you too will be in a similar situation many times throughout your career. Always be professional and courteous by agreeing to reasonable extensions and other requests. Of course do not let the other side take advantage of you and always do what is best for your client, but being a good person will make you an even better lawyer.
8. Pick a role model to follow by example. There many examples of both “good” and “bad” lawyers. The best way to learn is to learn by example. This is a difficult profession, which requires a mix of intelligence, persuasiveness, objectiveness, and aggressiveness in order to succeed. A lawyer does not have to be disrespectful, unethical, or intolerable to achieve these goals. Pick someone you admire as a lawyer and as a person, and observe how he or she handles all types of situations with his or her adversaries and colleagues and emulate that behavior. Also take notice of the ones who do not do it well to learn why they are not effective and why others do not respect their behavior.
9. Pick up the phone. In this day and age, no one wants to talk. Almost all communications are done through email or other electronic means. Email “wars” are common, and we all have sent something we regretted later, especially from our phone. When you are having a dispute with opposing counsel or a disagreement with a colleague over something, pick up the phone or walk down the hall. Hearing each other’s voice or looking into each other’s eyes demands more courtesy and respect (at least it should) then hiding behind your words in an email. Difficult disputes are more likely to be resolved over a conversation than an email. Take the extra ten minutes to pick up the phone or have a face-to-face discussion – it will almost always result in a quicker, more satisfying outcome.
10. Follow the Golden Rule. This is the most important tip of them all! When presented with a difficult situation, always stop and think to yourself how would I want to be treated. The key is to take a few seconds and process this thought. No one wants to be treated poorly, unprofessionally, or with disrespect, no matter how they may act towards others. If you follow this one simple rule, you are on your way to earning the respect of your colleagues and a successful career and reputation.