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August 27, 2019 Articles

How to Thrive and Succeed as the Youngest Attorney in the Room

A young lawyer’s perspective on dealing with opposing counsel.

By Mark Richardson

Although I have been in private practice for almost eight years, I find that I am still often the youngest person in any given setting within my personal injury practice. Such settings often include interactions with opposing counsel in a deposition, trial, mediation, or elsewhere. So, what are some best practices for a young attorney when interacting with opposing counsel? This article will explore some helpful (and easy-to-employ) techniques that I have found useful in my practice thus far. 

Tip #1: Don’t Treat Opponents Like the Enemy

A common message delivered by experienced litigators in my firm is “Do not treat opposing counsel like an enemy.” A quality working relationship with opposing counsel is a worthy goal in every case.

How close you get to achieving that goal is dependent on both attorneys involved. While you can control your own attitude and civility in these situations, you cannot control the actions of opposing counsel. In most cases, you will encounter professional, cordial attorneys on the other side. Inevitably, however, you will have cases with difficult personalities or tactics that will frustrate you at every turn. Recent advice from a senior litigator in my firm caught my attention: “Always, always show respect for opposing counsel, even if they did nothing to deserve it.” This presents a challenge to any young attorney navigating the waters of prelitigation, discovery, and trial practice.

Make no mistake. You must, first and foremost, aggressively pursue your client’s case. Nothing in this article advocates otherwise. Treating opposing counsel respectfully does not come at the cost of less avid representation of your client.

Showing respect to your opponent starts from the beginning of the process and continues to the final verdict. Below, I take the opportunity to walk through what I continue to learn about being respectful and hopefully keeping your reputation intact. Before we get to a few specific interactions during the litigation process, though, it is worthwhile to discuss the nature of the interactions between you and opposing counsel.

Take my own practice—personal injury—for example. An interdependent relationship exists between plaintiffs’ personal injury attorneys and insurance defense attorneys. Without plaintiffs’ personal injury attorneys bringing lawsuits, insurance defense attorneys become unnecessary. Conversely, without competent, qualified insurance defense attorneys, plaintiffs’ paths to the courtroom would be far bumpier. Thus, it is far more conducive to a successful plaintiffs’ practice to treat opposing counsel as professional colleagues and a vital piece of the justice system rather than as an opponent who must be defeated at all costs.

With that dynamic in mind—and with the knowledge that a considerable majority of insurance defense attorneys do things right and aggressively defend their clients while showing respect for plaintiffs’ attorneys’ time, effort, and, most importantly, clients—you should consider other benefits to not treating opposing counsel as the enemy: Establishing credibility and rapport with your opposing counsel can make your job less stressful. Furthermore, I speak from experience when I say that clients typically appreciate when their cases unfold with a sense of civility and cooperation between the attorneys.

Tip #2: Draft Complaints Respectfully

A good working relationship starts at the beginning. Before opposing counsel even enters the case, the form and substance of your complaint can set the tone for the litigation. Draft complaints that are well-pleaded under the law. Avoid overly salacious or inflammatory allegations. Refrain from pleading every minor detail involved in the incident giving rise to the lawsuit.

I recognize that this drafting advice is not universally agreed upon by litigators. There have been situations where I have strategically utilized complaints more detailed than absolutely necessary. Those, however, have been the exceptions to the rule. Before I take any action, I ask myself, “How does this further my client’s interest?” A pleading that stretches the length of a mini-novel is unlikely to be well-received by opposing counsel, and, just like you, they can obstruct, delay, and increase the expenses in a given case. They also can be instrumental in getting a case settled prior to trial. You want opposing counsel to treat your client with respect and dignity. Getting off on the right foot will help your client in the long run.

Tip #3: Be Proactive with Communication

After the case is filed, my best advice with regard to opposing counsel is to keep the lines of communication open. Wherever possible, be proactive with your cases.

As a plaintiffs’ attorney, I strive to remember that a primary function of defense counsel’s job is evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of the lawsuit. Good defense attorneys will recognize strong cases and can become a key to getting my client fair value when and if settlement negotiations take place.

The same sentiment can be applied to any other opposing counsel relationship. Keeping opposing counsel updated benefits your client. For example, it can take time to hear back from experts or get all the appraisals, accounting, etc., to build your case for trial. Instead of waiting until everything is done and sending it all out at once, shoot off brief letters to opposing counsel at each step.

Frequent case updates do several things to advance your client’s interests:

  1. It keeps the case top of mind for opposing counsel, avoiding long delays.
  2. It ensures opposing counsel has the information necessary to evaluate the case and settlement offers.
  3. It adds pressure by demonstrating that the case is actively progressing toward the courtroom.
  4. It invites responses from opposing counsel that can shed more light on the various positions being taken in the case.

Not only does this sort of active communication advance your current client’s interests, but it will advance your future clients’ interests when you come up against the same opposing counsel because they will know that you will be prepared and thorough in your preparation for trial.

Tip #4: Fight, but with Civility

There are behaviors that you can control to help set a professional and respectful tone with opposing counsel during the case. However, all of you have undoubtedly encountered attorneys who are difficult to work with regardless of your efforts at civility. They poke your clients during depositions for no other reason than to get a reaction. They serve discovery that is overly intrusive into your client’s life. They become keyboard warriors, sending nasty emails and letters that demean your client, the case, or you personally.

The natural reaction is to fight back. My advice is to do just that, but in a way that does not degrade you or the legal profession. Do not fight pettiness with pettiness, anger with anger, or childishness with childishness. Express your disappointment with opposing counsel’s tenor, but refrain from engaging in similar character assassinations.

Do your best to utilize the tools built into the legal system to counter. Attempt to resolve discovery disputes with a respectful tone and genuine eye toward resolution. If that fails, quietly file your motion to quash or compel. Avoid shouting matches in front of your client during a deposition. Instead, take a break and get the judge on the phone or keep the deposition open until the issue is addressed. Respond to harsh correspondence with calmness. In your written reply, dutifully point out any factual inaccuracies or legal disagreements.

Always call and congratulate opposing counsel on a win in the courtroom, regardless of the arrows that come your way during trial.


It will serve you well to exhibit civility in the practice of law. You will earn the reputation that you want as a litigator. You will always be able to look yourself in the mirror and be proud of what you see. You will better advance your clients’ interests while helping to maintain the practice of law as a true and worthy profession within our community. These are all admirable (and attainable) goals for any young attorney.

Mark Richardson is an associate at Rembolt Ludtke in Lincoln, Nebraska. 

Copyright © 2019, American Bar Association. All rights reserved. This information or any portion thereof may not be copied or disseminated in any form or by any means or downloaded or stored in an electronic database or retrieval system without the express written consent of the American Bar Association. The views expressed in this article are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the positions or policies of the American Bar Association, the Section of Litigation, this committee, or the employer(s) of the author(s).