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Litigation Journal

Fall 2023: Game On

Sportsmanship in Litigation and Law

Anne Marie Seibel

  • Differences in race, socioeconomic status, and political persuasion tend to fade away in a packed sports stadium.
  • Surely, we do not intend to rely on Little Leaguers to demonstrate more civility than lawyers.
  • Lawyers can be role models.
Sportsmanship in Litigation and Law
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We have spent a lot of time since 2020 in our own corners, watching our own version of world events and becoming more deeply entrenched in our views. During that time, much of the country stopped exercising the muscles that help us to see the world from broader perspectives and to reveal the human being behind any given opposing view. The impact on our society already is evident. We are less able to have productive discourse about issues on which we may disagree. We jump to conclusions about the extremity of the other side’s positions. We tend to forget that we are more alike than not and that we have a shared interest in the future of our communities, countries, and world.

One of the places where we still manage to come together across the divides is sports. Differences in race, socioeconomic status, and political persuasion tend to fade away in a packed stadium rooting for a favorite team. Individuals who would have no reason to cross paths outside the stadium sit shoulder to shoulder inside it, perched on the edge of their seats ready to rise in cheers or sink into shared despair as the game proceeds.

During the game, we expect the players to give their all for the team. But, after it, we expect them to shake hands, congratulate the other team, swap jerseys, and put the intensity of the game behind them. Indeed, one of the first things learned in Little League or tot soccer is that no matter what the outcome, you line up at the end of the game to shake hands with the other side and the officiating crew. It is a sign of respect for exerting full effort on the field, abiding by the rules of the game, and recognizing the shared athletic experience. As we came out of the pandemic, sometimes those shakes were replaced by air hugs; but the tradition of looking the other team in the eye with respect upon meeting in the middle of the field continued.

Even in the most hotly contested sporting events, we hold our sporting icons to high ideals of fair and respectful play, to which we do not always hold ourselves in the rest of our activities. If anyone should be able to demonstrate those ideals of civility (both at work and at play), it is litigators. Lawyers are trained to be skilled at advocating for their client’s position without personalizing it. Litigators, in particular, learn to advocate zealously for that position, while always keeping an eye toward understanding where the other side is coming from. To litigate, you must see not only your position’s strengths but also its weaknesses. Equally important is understanding the other side’s strengths and weaknesses. You can’t play the game that is litigation without being able to see several moves ahead.

Although lawyers are trained in these skills, we do not always demonstrate them. I was taught to shake hands after an argument, demonstrate respect to the tribunal, and stop short of accusing anyone of lying unless falsity was actually an element of a claim. As in the rest of society, those ideals have faded in litigation, too. Yet, if lawyers cannot speak across divides and demonstrate civility, it is hard for us to expect others to do so. Think about the difference we could make if we as litigators were actively working in our communities to look for shared goals and see the middle ground instead of extremes. We each have the skills to lead in looking our opponents in the eye, recognizing their value, and shaking their hands.

Surely, we do not intend to rely on Little Leaguers to step into the void and demonstrate more civility than lawyers. We can be role models. We must be role models. I challenge you this week to take (and publicly promote) at least one action to further civility and demonstrate that lawyers can lead the way. Game on.