Professionalism and civility are crucial to a successful career as a lawyer, but what it means to exhibit professionalism as a lawyer is a question without a simple answer. Certainly it means being a proficient and ethical lawyer, but professionalism goes beyond simply adhering to the ethical rules in your jurisdiction.
Navigating the issue of professionalism in practice can be particularly challenging for new or young lawyers just beginning the practice of law. Below are some tips for new lawyers, or even more experienced lawyers, to keep in mind.
1. Be prepared. Always show up prepared. Our profession demands it and there is no excuse for a lack of sufficient preparation. Good preparation, especially as a new lawyer, demonstrates to the court and to opposing counsel that you are ready, willing, and able to stand where you are standing and that you are taking an important matter seriously.
2. Make time to listen first. Remember, in many cases, you will be the most junior person in the room. Take time to listen carefully to what is being said and to make sure you understand what is expected of you. Take the time to observe how other lawyers and judges act and speak. Where appropriate, don’t be afraid to ask questions and seek their advice. Acknowledging that, as a new lawyer, you still have a lot to learn can go a long way. That said …
3. Be confident (but not arrogant!). If you are prepared (see Tip 1!), 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.
4. Hold your ground. You have been retained by your client to counsel and advocate for them. Always advocate in a respectful and courteous manner, even if (especially if) opposing counsel is not. Unfortunately, some more experienced attorneys will attempt to bully and intimidate new lawyers so that the new lawyers will back down. Respectfully holding your ground will help you be the best possible lawyer you can for your client.
5. Be patient and take the high road. It is often said that patience is a virtue. That is particularly true in the legal profession. It can be incredibly 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. However, it is crucial in these situations to take a deep breath and respond in a professional and civil manner. Of course, there may be times when you need to walk away, temporarily, from 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 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.
6. Don’t take the bait. When another lawyer is being discourteous or just plain obnoxious, it can be almost impossible not to match their attitude and tone. Don’t. Don’t take the bait. One of your most important objectives from day one should be to never compromise when it comes to professionalism. Never compromise your integrity, respect, beliefs, or standards. It is okay make compromises in 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.
7. Know when you are in over your head. We have all found 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 difficult situation or a difficult lawyer. Your colleagues and mentors will be happy to help. Seeking their advice and guidance will result in a better outcome and help you learn from the experience.
8. Be reasonable and compassionate. Believe it or not, lawyers are people too. There are times when other lawyers, including adversaries, are going through difficult times, either professionally or personally. It could be a challenging 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 allow opposing counsel to take advantage of you, and always be sure to do what is in your client’s best interest, but remember that being a good person will make you an even better lawyer.
9. Pick up the phone. Fast-paced communication is the norm in this day and age. Almost all communications come via 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 then hiding behind words in an email. Difficult disputes are more likely to be resolved by having an actual conversation. Take the extra few minutes to pick up the phone or have a face-to-face discussion—it will almost always result in a quicker, more satisfying outcome and a better relationship with the lawyer on the other end.
10. Find a mentor you trust. This cannot be said too many times—mentors are absolutely critical to your development as a lawyer. Find someone you admire as a lawyer and as a person, and ask that person to be your mentor. Seek his or her advice often. Take the opportunity to observe how he or she handles situations with adversaries and colleagues. Emulate that behavior. There is no one-size-fits-all approach to the challenges you will encounter as a lawyer. Knowing that you have a trusted mentor (or mentors) only a phone call away will be a tremendous asset to you as you navigate the early part of your career.
The law is a rewarding profession, but it is also a stressful profession. That reality makes it even more important that we remember our responsibilities to each other and to the bar, especially if those around us sometimes lose sight of them. Committing to being professional, civil lawyers will result in better outcomes for our clients and make the practice of law more fulfilling and less stressful for us all.