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June 27, 2022 Practice Points

Changing the Narrative: Appreciating the Importance of Civility Throughout Our Profession

There is great strength in knowing that you can be both an outstanding lawyer and an outstanding human being.

By Katherine Handy

When I first began practicing law, I remember a senior attorney once told me, “You need to be the bully, Katherine. Don’t be the ‘kind one.’ Be the ‘mad one.’” At the time, the notion seemed so foreign to me, but unfortunately this sentiment is one that is too often shared throughout our profession. It seems many practitioners believe that a world simply cannot exist in which you are both an effective advocate for your client and a compassionate human being.

Take for example, one of my first experiences with an opposing counsel. Shortly after I became licensed, the attorney on the opposite side threatened to report me to the state bar because my secretary had accidentally set his motion for hearing instead of my competing motion. I can still feel the overwhelming sense of panic as I frantically called the court to set the issue straight, all to have the opposing counsel leave me a scathing voicemail in which he threatened to increase his demand to my client as a way of punishing me for my first-year blunder. Now, as a more seasoned attorney, I can look back on that experience and so easily see the situation for what it was: he was a bully. Plain and simple.

I’m sure it’s not lost on any of us that our profession is known for being a bit…ruthless. In fact, as discussed in the book Wisdom of Psychopaths by Kevin Dutton (a University of Oxford psychologist), Dutton claims that lawyers are the second most psychopathic professionals. While I am hardly suggesting we’re all psychopaths, I do think it’s worth recognizing that we—as a legal community—have a long way to go towards changing the bully dynamic that has plagued our profession for far too long. Indeed, I think the issue is not that we are simply attracting all the grown-up playground bullies from our youth. Rather, we are a profession perpetuating an archaic narrative that you must become a bully to achieve success. That, of course, could not be further from the truth.

So, how do we fix this? And where do we even start? It sounds a bit elementary, but I think it starts in the small moments. In the phone calls. In the lengthy email exchanges. In the last-minute conferences from an opposing counsel who has children screaming in the background. In the breakrooms where associates are pooled together, trying to figure out a procedural question because they’re too afraid to ask the partner. In the summer clerkship outings where bright-eyed law students are asking about how you created the career you now enjoy. I want to challenge all of us to change the narrative and take the time to really listen to one another. After all, there is great strength in knowing that you can be both an outstanding lawyer and an outstanding human being. And, to the new lawyers, I’ll give you a piece of advice I wish I’d heard when I first started practicing—in a world full of bullies, it’s okay to be the kind lawyer. 

Katherine Handy is senior counsel at Bowman and Brooke LLP in their Dallas, Texas, office. 

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