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Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: What Lawyers Call Themselves Matters

Richard M. Hunt


  • A litigator’s persona is on full display to the world each time the litigator walks into a courtroom.
  • Strive to be a warrior fighting for your client without turning into a merciless berserker.
  • We can be superheroes for a week or a month, but eventually we must choose to be human.
Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy: What Lawyers Call Themselves Matters
Kohei Hara via Getty Images

Many lawyers spend years conforming their conduct to appear to be someone other than their genuine selves in their practice of law. As litigators, we are especially susceptible to the desire to portray ourselves in a certain light. After all, a litigator’s persona is on full display to the world each time the litigator walks into a courtroom. However, this is an act of artifice that can be harmful to us and to our clients if it is taken too far. Just being a lawyer should be enough.

Crafting an Image

In my first summer clerkship, I worked for lawyer who had a framed 19th-century Colt .45 with the legend “Gunfighters don’t charge by the bullet.” You might have guessed he worked on contingency-fee cases, but that is as far as the gunfighter metaphor went. He was tough and aggressive but also perfectly professional. Since then, I’ve known lawyers who embraced the gunfighter metaphor a little too wholeheartedly. It is one thing to think of yourself as Matt Dillon and another to personify John Wesley Hardin. Anyone reading this will be able to think of a lawyer or two in the latter group.

That same summer, I worked with two specialists in a major law firm who were not trial lawyers. They were, as they told me, intellectuals committed to having a deep knowledge of their area of law. Their pure knowledge could then be used by the lawyers who got their hands dirty making deals and trying lawsuits. I had always liked the theatrics of the courtroom, but I was also attracted to the idea of the lawyer as academic. For a while, I imagined myself a learned barrister in the English tradition.

As my career progressed, I began to understand that my contemporaries, like me, tended to choose a metaphor for themselves as a lawyer not because of who they were but because the metaphor—gunfighter, intellectual, warrior, spin doctor—described who they imagined they wanted to be. Or how they wanted their clients and others to think of them.

Warrior Image, Tempered

As I got better at the business of trying cases, I began to do what many trial lawyers do and imagine myself as a warrior or gunfighter. “Take no prisoners” and “fight to the death” were stirring mottos in the world of big-firm, big-time litigation. Then a jury taught me an important lesson.

In a rather minor lawsuit, I turned the full weight of my rhetorical abilities against an opposing party whose bad behavior stemmed from an addiction. I crushed him on the witness stand. It might have worked in a drunk driving case, but this was an employment dispute about nothing but money. I lost. When I talked to the jurors after the trial, three out of six told me they had friends or relatives who suffered the same addiction. It had not helped my client’s case to beat up a man with whom the jury sympathized, even if I got the better of the fight.

After that, I strove to be a warrior fighting hard for my client without turning into a merciless berserker engaged in scorched-earth litigation.

Superhero Image

At some point in my career, I was also tempted by the metaphor of lawyer as superhero. Like many young lawyers, I did my time working 20-hour days, seven days a week. For years, I thought “tireless, hard-charging advocate” was my essential character. I was not alone. Many of my contemporaries decided they, too, could be superheroes, as have many lawyers older and younger.

The problem? We are not superheroes. We are human beings. Lawyers have shockingly high rates of alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, and anxiety, some of which can be attributed to the fact that many of us forget that being a superhero is a metaphor for the intensity we can bring to bear on our clients’ problems—it is not our actual identity. As litigators, we can be superheroes for a week or a month, but eventually we must choose to be human or our bodies and minds will remind us of our humanity in harmful or even deadly ways.

Limitations of Metaphorical Images

The truth is, no metaphor can capture the complexity of practicing law. Sometimes we need to be warriors or gunslingers. Sometimes we need to be empathetic counselors. Sometimes we need to be ivory tower intellectuals. And sometimes we even need to be superheroes. But none of these describes all of the things it means to be a lawyer—and all of them can be a trap that limits us in our careers and in our lives. We don’t need to be someone else—a metaphor—no matter how glamorous or dramatic it may seem. Being a lawyer is more than enough.