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June 26, 2021 May/June 2021

Taking the Lead: A Brief Word About Our Words

Linda Klein & John Hinton IV

Words are the coin of the realm for lawyers. Our words persuade judges to grant our motions, juries to return verdicts for our clients and opposing counsel to agree to our negotiating points. We are painfully aware that a single careless statement can be the difference between achieving our clients’ goals or failing. Knowing the right words to use can be difficult. With so much on the line, we choose our words with great care.

Nevertheless, we who make our living in large part based on our ability to say the right thing at the right time often forget that there may also be much on the line with the words we use with our colleagues and co-workers. Our words—verbal and written—have as much power within the office as they do within a courtroom or brief. They can discourage, hurt, mis­represent, manipulate, dismiss, dishonor and divide. The good news is that few people consistently speak in these terms. The bad news is that the margin for error is small. Like a spark that grows into a wildfire, a single careless state­ment can create mistrust, anger, resent­ment or dissatisfaction—the exact opposite of what is required for optimal productiv­ity, profitability and job satisfaction.

Setting aside that it is the right thing to do, what if we spoke to our colleagues with as much care as we speak to judges, juries and our own clients? They might, in turn, use the energy otherwise expended in response to our poorly chosen words for purposes that benefit the firm. Firms might then avoid unnecessary turnover and counterproductive behavior. Office dis­course marked by encouragement, candor, restraint and affirmation has the power to steer a firm toward its goals.

Controlling the tongue is clearly an individual discipline. We all have room for improvement. Here are some sugges­tions. First, a dose of humility creates the right frame of mind. While it is difficult to forget the slights that we receive, it is easy to forget that there are others who have felt the effects of our own careless words. We are all offenders with our words from time to time, and that fact should give us pause. Second, self-examination reveals what needs to change. Consider some of your recent communications, partic­ularly when you were disappointed in a colleague’s behavior. How do you handle these incidents? Why do you fall into those patterns? What do you need to do to avoid those patterns in the future? Third, vigilance ensures success. Old habits are hard to break, and new habits take time to ingrain.

Email is a special offender. Without the nuance of voice inflection or body language, misinterpretation is common. We recall an email sincerely meant as a compliment that included a sarcastic comparison. The sarcasm was not under­stood as a joke. Instead, the comparison torpedoed the encouraging and thank­ful meaning of the email. The recipients thought they were being criticized.

We are not Pollyannaish in our assess­ment of the impact this will have on your law firm. Conflict is a lawyer’s chosen profession, and kind words alone cannot build utopia at your firm. On the other hand, we have all been on both the giving and receiving end of comments that make matters worse. Even if all you achieve is to recognize more occasions when communication is creating problems and stop the damage, your firm will be better off.

Of course, we must all have difficult but necessary conversa­tions, which is a topic we addressed in a prior column. There is a time to disagree, to disappoint and even to divide. Conflict avoidance is no virtue. The point is to bring the appropriate words to the moment.

No set of rules will create this culture. It is difficult enough to control our own tongues, much less attempt to control others. As firm leaders, we can start by setting the example with our own words. Persuasion, encouragement and aspiration are our other tools. We must use a soft touch, but our examples can be contagious.

Although we try to take the content of each of our columns to heart, some hit home more than others. Honest self-exam­ination is never fun, frequently convicting, but always neces­sary for personal growth. We plan to embrace this process for ourselves and hope that it will lead us to build more and burn fewer bridges. We encourage you to do the same. Let us know how it goes. 

Linda Klein

Senior Managing Shareholder

Linda Klein is a past president of the ABA and senior managing shareholder at Baker Donelson. She is a frequent speaker on law practice, construction and higher education law. [email protected]

John Hinton IV


John Hinton IV is a shareholder in Baker Donelson’s Atlanta office. His practice focuses on commercial litigation and construction law. [email protected]