“Forced” is a strong word. But lawyers at our organizations were recently encouraged (and, at times, goaded and shamed) to take the Harry Potter Wizarding World sorting hat challenge. By virtue of their answers to enigmatic questions, participants were grouped into one of the four fictional houses that make up the Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in J.K. Rowling’s epic series. There is Gryffindor, known for bravery and assertiveness; Hufflepuff, known for hard work, loyalty, and fairness; Ravenclaw, renowned for intelligence, planning, and wit; and, finally, Slytherin, marked by cunning, ambition, and ruthlessness.
If we adopt the stereotype of the lawyer as a hard-nosed, aggressive fighter, one might expect halls of litigators to be sorted most frequently in the first and fourth houses, maybe even trending Slytherin. And, in the right doses and at the right times, litigators must be prepared to draw on the Slytherin traits. Professional, to be sure, but unwilling to bend where doing so might prejudice the client or impair the client’s rights. In certain instances, fidelity to the client’s interests requires that lawyers take hard lines, stand firm, and pursue aggressive tactics to achieve the client’s ends.
Practice for a decade or so, however, and you begin to realize that those instances are somewhat infrequent. There may be two or three inflection points in a case or a deal where the gloves really do need to come off and counsel can show no flexibility. But even then, there is a difference between aggressive and acrimonious. You can reject an adversary’s argument without turning it into an insult or questioning the adversary’s candor. And, absent prejudice to your client, you can be reasonably accommodating when it comes to scheduling, logistics, and turnaround times.
At the risk of stating the obvious, exhibiting courtesy, reasonableness, and professionalism to your adversaries can ultimately benefit your client’s interests. Pointless conflict drives up legal fees. Punishing demands on your opponent (e.g., for discovery or lightning-fast responses) are likely to be met in kind when the other side voices demands of its own, burdening your client in equal measure. Courts are unlikely to be receptive to a litigant when its counsel is behaving like a street brawler or a petulant seventh grader. And, when it comes time for resolution (as well over 90 percent of civil litigation ends in settlement), pent-up acrimony, hostility, and distrust will make it more challenging to reach a resolution that fairly accounts for the realities of the merits and continued litigation. Where resolution fails and trial ensues, moreover, fact finders are rarely seen rooting for the side whose attorney is (or, in deposition replays, was) treating the adversary or opposing counsel badly.
But it is not just the client’s interests that suffer from Slytherin-like litigation. The lawyers do, too. And we’re not talking just about peace of mind, fulfillment in the profession, or a holiday weekend untainted by snarky emails from your adversaries. Lawyers who do not adopt a Slytherin posture attract work that transforms them from mere service attorneys into business generators.