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January 11, 2017 Articles

Reputation: Professional or Unprincipled?

It is crucial to never lose sight of the fact that every interaction plays a role in solidifying your professional reputation.

By Jason Brenner

I remember when I signed my first pleading as an associate. Complete disclosure: I might have printed the signature page a couple of times to get my signature just right (don’t worry, I planted a tree to make up for the wasted paper). That moment was a culmination of years of hard work, uncertainty, and triumph. I was now a practicing lawyer, and seeing my signature on the complaint reminded me of that. 

The legal titans for whom I worked warned me that the first thing opposing counsel would do upon receiving the pleading was look to see what firm (and attorney) signed it. Either opposing counsel would know the firm and/or the lawyer, or he or she would engage in recon. A firm-wide email would go out requesting any information on me and my firm. It could be that multiple people would reply to that recon email and sit with the senior partner to reveal what they knew about me, including my skill, intelligence, and personality.

At the beginning of your legal career, you might not give much consideration to establishing your reputation. Young lawyers are dealing with many extraneous factors, such as being overwhelmed by school loans and work demands, that can affect their conduct in the legal profession. Coupled with that, exposure is limited. Thus, reputation might not be a top priority. However, it is crucial to never lose sight of the fact that every interaction plays a role in solidifying your professional reputation.

Litigation: Marvelous or Miserable?
In the years I have been practicing, I have found some disconnect between my generation of lawyer and the old guard. At one time, it seems, the line was blurred between respecting your opponents and acting as though they were your bitter enemy. By the very nature of working on a trial, opposing counsel are battle opponents. Depositions, hearings, emails, trial, mediations, etc.—each one calls for different battleground strategies. No matter where the litigation stands, though, one constant can—and should—remain: professionalism.

Trying cases is a rarity for young lawyers, but I have been fortunate to sit second chair on two trials. Those two experiences were completely different from one another with respect to interacting with opposing counsel, and each taught me something important about professionalism.

The first trial was acrimonious in terms of opposing counsel’s conduct throughout the litigation and at trial. Unfortunately, there were no agreements on anything. Every aspect had to be resolved by judicial intervention.

The weeklong trial went largely as expected, and I could not be more excited. Both parties rested on a Friday, providing a whole weekend to prepare for closings. I spent all weekend fine-tuning my closing and on Monday morning was ready to go. As I went over my bullet points just outside the courtroom, I saw out of the corner of my eye opposing counsel exit the elevator. I peered intently at my bullet points, hoping not to pass out. I will never forget what happened next. One of the defense lawyers turned to me and said, “If you don’t know it now, you never will.” It was a weak intimidation tactic, but one nonetheless. I get it: I was young, and it was evident from my excitement that it was my first trial. Get the advantage where you can. I said nothing in response and barely looked up to meet his stare.

Absent a couple of shaky first sentences, my closing went off without a hitch. The end result of the trial led to a verdict in our client’s favor—and a lifelong lesson in professionalism. Although both sides shook hands at the end and acknowledged the hard-fought battle, the words spoken to me right before my closing played over and over in my head. This lawyer had been practicing for decades. Upon reflection, I concluded that he decided that was the way he wanted to carry himself. Little did this veteran know, though, the impact that his conduct and statement made on my career and my perception of him as a professional.

My second trial was a completely different experience. The attorneys worked together throughout the entire litigation, extending mutual professional courtesies in making deponents available and working through conflicts. When it came time for trial, we agreed on exhibits and witnesses and worked together to facilitate the trial. On the occasions where we could not agree, we respectfully argued our positions to the judge. The case was fought the way I envisioned that a case should be fought—on the merits and without gamesmanship. We fervently advocated for our clients without losing ourselves in the battle. We respected one another and understood each other when we could not reach an agreement. Arguments to the court were not personal mudslinging events or character assassinations; they were differences of opinion that required a determination by the court.

At the end of the second trial, both sides shook hands with one another and expressed sincere gratitude for the other side’s professionalism and how hard-fought the case was. I can tell you that opposing counsel thought his client did absolutely nothing wrong to contribute to my client’s injuries. However, at no point in time did he conduct himself in a manner other than as a consummate professional, and I believe that he feels the same way about me.

Networking: Impact of Reputation
Networking is a necessary activity for all young lawyers. Whether you are a solo practitioner or a part of a big firm trying to develop a book of business to grow your practice or clientele, you must get out there. Bar associations hold events regularly throughout the year. After a long day at work, you may not want to go and mingle, but it is a necessity. And it can even be enjoyable. I once went to a networking event where I have misspelled my own name on a name tag and crossed it out, but—guess what?—it became a good icebreaker.

The importance of engaging in a manner consistent with principles and integrity in the legal field is exemplified in networking settings. Good or bad, how you practice will be heard in many rooms, bars, restaurants, and homes.

I once went to an event where I put on my name tag (spelled correctly) and struck up a conversation with someone I didn’t know. This person practiced in a completely different area but had a friend who worked on the other side in my field. The person immediately said to me, “Don’t you have a case against so and so over at so and so firm?” That moment resonated with me because the implications of the question went beyond small talk. If this person ever had a case and considered me as a person to refer the matter to, he would call his friend to find out about what type of lawyer and person I am. He would take the advice of his friend: the vote of confidence or lack thereof would be critical. If I was an arrogant, self-righteous obstructionist during litigation with his friend, I imagine that the friend would recommend anyone else but me.

Young lawyers should never lose sight of the importance of building themselves as both reputable people and reputable lawyers. To think that your conduct as a lawyer will not impact your reputation for many years to come is naïve.

The early years of our careers are when we establish who we are as young lawyers and how we are seen in the legal community. I have fallen short at times during my tenure as a young lawyer. I have reacted to others in ways that I shouldn’t have. I have answered emails when I should have taken the time to breathe. Nonetheless, those were aberrations, not a pattern.

A young lawyer has no more control over opposing counsel than he does over the person trying to take his parking spot. But the choice does rest with us over how we choose to navigate through the next 20 to 30 years in the legal profession.

I would rather be viewed as a worthy opponent versus a win-at-all costs attorney who has sacrificed self for victory. Believe me, I do not like losing, but regardless of whether the jury returns a verdict in my client’s favor, no one will question my conduct or what I did to obtain that result.

Keywords: litigation, young lawyer, professionalism, reputation

Jason Brenner is an associate at the Haggard Law Firm in Coral Gables, Florida.