January 2017 Bar Bulletin
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January 2017 Bar Bulletin

Why Civility Matters

By Carol Bailey-Medwell


This is the second of two articles about the importance to our community of attorneys modeling civilized behavior, professionalism and effective communication skills.
The first article appeared in the November issue of the Bar Bulletin.

As I wrote in the first article, given the crass and irresponsible nature of the national conversation, almost everyone I talk to agrees it is more important than ever that we all do our part to promote respectful and civilized conversation. Many people feel helpless to do something to improve the mood in the country. We can each begin with the conversations we have every day.

Attorneys aspire to be civilized and dignified. Few men or women would say he or she doesn’t care about this. But aspirations must carry through into actual behavior, and that is often difficult when we are under stress. So, what are some specific things that will help us achieve our aspirations to be respectful, helpful attorneys? One of the biggest challenges is dealing effectively with other attorneys.

We walk a fine line in representing our clients’ interests while maintaining a good working relationship with other counsel. It is ultimately not in our clients’ financial or psychological interests to have their legal matters erupt into hostile, contentious interactions. Clients of all kinds, even individuals working for large corporate clients, find high conflict very stressful.

The foundation for maintaining a good working relationship with other attorneys is smart, informed communication skills. Good communication skills give us the confidence necessary to advocate effectively and remain civilized and respectful in the process. The following communication skills and practice tips can help you become a more effective communicator and thereby better serve your clients. These tips also will allow you to lower your personal stress as you become better at managing potential conflict areas.

If you find yourself stuck and unable to work well with another attorney, come back to this article and read through these tips. It may also be helpful to offer one or more tips to your client. Using even one of these tips can improve your and your client’s ability to communicate with others, remain civil in stressful circumstances and avoid the destructive effects of conflict.

Communication Tips

Don’t take your client’s case personally — it’s not about you. Letting your ego be drawn into your interactions with others and feeling “offended” will interfere with your ability to make sound judgments and objectively advise your client. The other attorney’s comments about the case or about what your client did or your client’s motives are not comments about you.

Even if another attorney does make a comment about you, don’t allow yourself to be drawn into the conflict. Your client is paying you to know the law, develop the facts and communicate clearly, not to become defensive and start fighting with the other attorney, often to no avail. See the section below on “triggers” if you find yourself feeling defensive and you become aggressive when feeling stressed.

Think in terms of perspectives, not right and wrong. Even though our clients often think there is a right and a wrong, all we, as attorneys, have to work with is provable facts. We weren’t there when the events occurred and we don’t know what truly happened. Because of this the attorneys and the clients don’t operate with the same facts. Also every individual brings a different interpretation, set of assumptions and agenda to the situation.

For both of these reasons, focusing on who is right and who is wrong is not productive. In conversations with other attorneys, getting locked into a struggle over who is “right” is not likely to lead to an effective resolution. If we focus on solutions that meet everyone’s underlying interests rather than who is right, we will develop better outcomes for our clients. It also helps in your personal life to remember this.

Acknowledge that the opposing party has a right to a different point of view. You won’t get very far if you cannot acknowledge that the other party has a right to his or her or its own point of view. As an advocate, it is important to be able to see or acknowledge that the other person or business has a right to see things differently from you and your client.

When you acknowledge this to the other attorney it helps them see that you are a reasonable person, and this acknowledgment keeps things from becoming too positional and argumentative at the outset. This simple act of respect can help establish a conversational environment conducive to rational resolution.

Do the shocking thing and align with the other attorney as co-problem solvers. In conversations with the other attorneys in the case, we state the obvious — the clients see things differently. They each have a story and a perspective. We can even say, “Let’s not get wrapped up in this ourselves. Our clients see this differently. Let’s see if we can work toward a resolution.”

It can be very helpful to communicate from this “third-party observer” stance, rather than being solely identified with your client’s perspective. This can help you align with the other attorney as co-problem solvers of your clients’ disputes rather than becoming immediate adversaries.

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