Judging Lawyers

TYL Editorial Board


Society has judged lawyers. Even lawyers have judged other lawyers. Admit it—you yourself judge people. We all do. Lawyer stereotypes run rampant. Some, unfortunately, have been earned. Others, however, result from ignorance and insecurity. The members of the TYL editorial board are not immune from judging and being judged. What follows are very personal, and very real, stories that the board members have graciously shared in the hopes of educating, enlightening, and yes, even entertaining. We’ve even included tips for turning these stereotypes into an advantage.

The 9-to-5 Government Lawyer

Have you ever heard the comment “those who can’t, teach”? It’s just about as offensive as the perception that all government workers, including attorneys, are somehow wasting taxpayer money, not working hard, and only waiting to clock out at 5 p.m. Sure, some highly publicized scandals from federal agencies come to mind (IRS? GAO?), but that’s not always the case.

Many folks don’t give a second thought about printing out a flight itinerary from their work computer or maybe even a new recipe to try at home. Not in my office. There’s a coffee mug next to the printer reminding you to pay your 10 cents for every personal printer job, copy, or scan. Checking your Gmail account from a work computer? Nope. Logging into Wi-Fi at work with your personal smartphone? Not even a possibility. Do I get any bonus for going over my billable hours to help a client get an emergency rule in place? No, but I do it anyway because an agency can’t do its work and can’t serve the people of the state if I don’t.

While these policies may seem draconian to some, my coworkers and I follow them. We are stewards and recipients of taxpayer money, and as we are committed to being the best advocate for the state, so are we committed to using the resources responsibly.

--Karen Clevering, US District Court, District of Oregon, Salem, OR

 

Naïve, Young, and Female

It was my first workers’ compensation hearing, and I had been warned that opposing counsel may try to take advantage of my perceived naïveté. As we walked into the courtroom he said, “Good luck on your first hearing, my darling.’” As predicted, he he attempted to bend, if not break, a rule of evidence during the hearing. Instead of sitting quietly, I stood up, smiled, and said, “Objection. This isn’t my first rodeo, honey.” The administrative law judge laughed, opposing counsel turned to look at me, jaw dropped and face as red as his bow tie. I doubt he’ll be calling me his “darlin’” again.

--Lindsay Smith, The Hartford Financial Services Group, Inc., Charleston, WV

 

The Nitpicking In-House Counsel

Everyone has heard a joke or two about how litigious lawyers are. Almost without fail, every time one of our contracts is sent to our in-house legal team (read: me), the other side of the negotiation is sent into a nervous tizzy, thinking the deal they worked so hard on is about to be torn to shreds. Most of the time, however, the other side is more than pleased to see my redlined contract. As a young in-house attorney, I work hard to understand the nature of the entertainment business in which I work. More importantly, I work to understand what my sales team is trying to accomplish in every contract I review. My goal is to help the business units I serve accomplish their stated goal. Being antagonistic and fighting on every single minor point, while definitely a stereotypical trait of an attorney, in my experience accomplishes very little. While most may feel that attorneys are brought in to fight, a willingness to be a facilitator leads to much more productive negotiations and will help you gain ground on points that actually matter to your client, making you an effective attorney and somebody with whom even the opposite side of a negotiation will enjoy dealing.

--Keith Black, American Greetings, New York, NY

 

The Family’s Personal Legal Expert

I’ve been warned that because I’m a lawyer, relatives will ask me for legal advice. But my relatives are too busy asking me to opine on the latest sensational trial. Justin Ross Harris, Oscar Pistorius, George Zimmerman, Casey Anthony . . . I get asked to weigh in, but—I’ve realized—not for my legal acumen. Why? There were (or are) no big legal questions in these cases, just a straightforward application of facts—often sordid and disputed ones—to well-established law.

Now, I don’t follow cases like these, mostly because the media circuses mask how the legal system works. Dramatic trials, especially criminal ones with grisly details, give people who aren’t in the legal profession a highly telescoped picture. For one thing, people think that there are trials. But well over 90 percent of criminal cases result in a guilty plea, and civil trials are a critically endangered species. So these cases do not accurately depict what we lawyers actually do.

Yet when I try to dodge my relatives by replying, “I’m not following the case,” they press me. To them, the question of whether Casey Anthony was guilty wasn’t a question of criminal law, but a deeply moral one. They were looking for someone who could give them a legal imprimatur for their judgment that she was a terrible person. But, as a lawyer, I must withhold judgment if I’m not in the courtroom (or reading the transcript), because I don’t have all the evidence—and neither do my relatives.

--Diana Camosy, National Veterans Legal Services Program, Washington, DC

 

The Second-Career Lawyer

I’m still a law-sector outsider, a stereotype that I think lawyers often apply to everyone else, even though I’m embarking on law after a significant career in journalism.

One recruiting attorney asked why I included my journalism experience on my resume, because, he said, he didn’t see any relevance or transferability of skills.

It was like so many experiences with lawyers I’d had as a reporter. I was being treated as the quintessential outsider with arrogance, condescension, and elitism.

After a deep breath, I explained that the work of both journalists and lawyers is essentially the same. Both gather facts through research, scene investigation, interviews; and both organize, analyze, and weave those facts into what, ideally, becomes a compelling story with a goal to improve people’s lives. I explained that having interviewed thousands of people across the demographic spectrum provides a huge experience cushion as a new lawyer that those on the college-law school-law firm bullet train probably don’t have. And then there’s the knowledge base from interacting with and reporting on government agencies at all levels and businesses across sectors, from fast food and retail to biotech and nuclear power.

All that provides enormous context and helps me in ways that might well be outcome determinative.

After my speech, came a few tense moments of silence, broken finally by, “Oh, I can see that, now that I think about it.”

I didn’t get that job, but if nothing else, I reminded myself of all I have to offer in what can seem, at times, a scary new endeavor.

--Scott Akin, Chickamauga, GA

 

The Ambulance Chaser

Ambulance chaser you say? Cheesy advertisements splashed on the back of buses? When I introduce myself as a personal injury (PI) attorney, I usually get more condescending laughs than nods of admiration. Unfortunately, I don’t blame my friends or other attorneys for not having more respect for the profession. There are plenty of smarmy PI attorneys in search of clients wanting to make a quick buck out of a sore neck.

However, on the flip side, there are also clients with legitimate claims who need an advocate against big corporations but who cannot afford to pay an hourly fee. Whether it be a massive DUI accident that has left a child brain dead, or a products liability case against a car manufacturer, there is a real need for this niche area of law. The client relationships become personal, and the battles against defense are hard fought. We represent the “little guy”—the David against the formidable Goliath. And for those of us who fight with dignity, we know ambulance chasing is not an option. Instead, we rely on our reputation for integrity—a quality that attorneys in all areas of practice should strive to uphold.

--Carolyn Tan, DeWitt Algorri & Algorri, Pasadena, CA

 

The Silent (but Deadly) Lawyer

Nothing makes your typical extrovert more nervous than the person who is quiet. From day one entering a private practice firm, I could already tell that my being the quiet one was going to be a problem. The claim is that quiet attorneys can’t develop clients and be social—extroverts find them to be bookworms who can never properly service a client. They assume the introvert can’t connect with their fellow attorneys, and they aren’t “team players.” However, as many other introverts can confess, the ability to listen is what is key to being an attorney. Instead of being the garrulous show-off, trying diligently to dazzle the client and other attorneys with not only their brilliance but also their “zealousness” for the client’s case, a careful listener with measured responses is what most effectively resolves the dispute and best represents the client. Instead of stereotyping the “silent” one as ineffective and trying to shoehorn them into an “extrovert” role, learn to work with introverts and see how their methods are effective.

--Phillip Long, BB&T, Greensboro, NC

 

The Unprepared Young Lawyer

“Read the Rules.” “Be prepared.” These are frequent admonishments of the appellate judge for whom I used to clerk. His admonishments were directed not only to me but also to other law clerks, new bar admittees, attorneys appearing before the court, and nearly any and all other attorneys in his audience at any given time. It is only now that I truly appreciate the value of his advice.

Being mistaken for a client by an unfamiliar judge, being subject to unreasonable demands in producing a joint appendix or discovery responses, and being threatened for entirely proper conduct during a deposition are only a few of the unfortunate events that lawyers in any practice area may experience. As a young lawyer, knowing the rules and being prepared has alleviated much of the stress often associated with such experiences.

Armed with the confidence that comes from knowing the rules has allowed me to avoid unreasonable and time consuming demands in producing a joint appendix. It has also allowed me to easily and quickly agree to correct a mistake opposing counsel identified in my joint appendix. Likewise, preparedness has allowed me to discern legitimate concerns from attempts to frustrate my cross-examination of a deponent. Preparedness has also allowed me to skillfully reveal fraud by opposing counsel’s client before the same unfamiliar judge who, hours earlier, mistook me for a client.

Knowing the rules and being prepared does not make this profession any less contentious. However, it does make it much easier to dispense with conduct that might otherwise cause you to doubt yourself, thereby allowing you to get on with the business of defending your clients and their interests.

--Namosha Boykin, Law Offices of Pedro K. Williams, St. Thomas, US Virgin Islands

 

The Big, Bad Wolf

The line starts ringing and someone on the other end answers and says, “Hello.” I ask to speak with William, and the other person says, “This is Bill.” My client had asked me to give Bill a call because Bill happens to have a copy of a document that we need. I introduce myself as an attorney, state whom my firm represents, and ask Bill if he has a few minutes to talk. For a minute, there’s a strange silence. I almost break the silence by saying that I’d be happy to call back at a better time, but instead, I blurt out, “Don’t worry. Nobody’s thinking of suing you. I’m just trying to find a document, and I think you might have a copy.” Suddenly, Bill’s back on the line and willing to talk. He chuckles and says, “When you said you were a lawyer, I thought to myself, ‘Uh-oh, what kind of trouble did I get myself into now?’ Lawyers usually don’t call you up unless there’s some kind of bad news.” We share a laugh, and I eventually get the information I need. Later that afternoon, I walk into the senior partner’s office, tell him that Bill is sending us what we need, and let him in on my interaction with Bill. The senior partner smiles brightly and says, “That’s happened to me before. For some reason, nobody believes you when you tell them you’re a lawyer and you’re here to help.” I’ve realized over time that although I can’t always change the public’s predispositions about lawyers, a good dose of sensitivity can ease their fears during an initial conversation.

--Raul Chacon, Ogletree, Deakins, Nash, Smoak & & Stewart, PC, Denver, Colorado

 

The Court Reporter

It’s not my first deposition, but not far from it. I walk into the conference room ready to do this. The butterflies in my stomach begin to wake up as I see opposing counsel, a well-seasoned (and well-respected) litigator. Because we have not yet met in person, he looks up as I walk through the doors and, before I can introduce myself, he points to a corner of the room and tells me that I can set up my equipment over there. Puzzled, I look at him with a blank stare. Recognizing my obvious confusion, he asks, “You’re the court reporter, right?” Ouch. I smile, walk over to shake his hand, and politely say, “No. I’m taking the deposition.” Clearly my youthful (and obviously female) appearance confused him. Over the years, I have learned that there is nothing better than being underestimated by your opponent; letting your professional—and stellar—performance speak for itself will ensure opposing counsel never makes that mistake again.

--Erin E. Rhinehart, Faruki Ireland & Cox PLL, Dayton, OH

 

The Lying Lawyer

“What are you doing these days?” came the question from my parents’ friends. “I’m attending law school,” I replied. “So you are learning how to be a liar! Haha!” I cringe inwardly—this is not the first time I have heard this, and I haven’t even started practicing law yet. It’s not worth explaining that attorneys have ethical obligations to maintain their bar admissions. And honestly, I understand where it comes from. The nature of advocacy requires that we put forth the most promising and convincing argument based on the law, whether we believe it to be the just outcome or not. We are taught to parse words, to find and deploy language with extreme precision. I would never tell a client that a particular outcome will happen, merely that it should happen. Now when people tell me, “you must be a good liar!” I tell them that actually, I’m not. But I am very good at finding the phrase I need to say exactly what I mean.

--Lisa Kothari, Quidsi, Inc., Jersey City, NJ

 

The Baby Lawyer

It was my tenth month of practice. I had spent months working hard, attempting to craft, but not contrive, an image of a serious young attorney willing to do what was asked of me. The departure of one colleague for an extended maternity leave presented a great opportunity to further develop that image. In this colleague’s absence, I would interact directly with clients and play a vital role in crafting strategy and keeping things moving. I was taking a giant step forward in my growth as a lawyer.

“This is our new associate. He is a baby lawyer.” That is how my colleague introduced me to one client. To another, she offered assurances that this new attorney would be supervised by a senior partner with considerable experience. As of print, she has not advised them regarding my bedtime or whether I eat my vegetables. Such enthusiastic and heartfelt endorsements of my skill and judgment, not to mention my experience, as an attorney no doubt instilled great confidence in these clients.

Such disclaimers are understandable. I am a new attorney. I will have at my disposal, and rely frequently, on the advice and counsel of those with more experience. Young lawyers find themselves plagued by labels and disclaimers— sometimes justified, often condescending, and always disheartening. The new lawyer may feel marginalized by such stereotypes, but I would advise to accept them as presenting both a challenge and an opportunity. I have not always followed this advice, but when I have, I felt—and performed—much better.

New lawyers carry a heavy burden. There is an unceasing pressure to prove one’s worth—to impress and produce quality work, and do it all over again the next day (only better). But new attorneys are in good company, for all attorneys face fundamentally the same challenge. No matter one’s experience or length of service, the pressure remains. Each client is unique, each case presents its own set of challenges, and each project presents anew the opportunity to refine your skills and hit a home run for your client—or to crash and burn. You learn to walk one day, and you are crawling again the next. In that sense, although some may not want to admit it, we are all “baby lawyers.”

--Edward M. O’Brien, Wilson Elser, Louisville, KY

 

The Student Turned Lawyer

Attorneys must focus on putting their best foot forward at all times, especially when meeting with new clients. I am an in-house patent attorney responsible for securing protection around intellectual property for a major university. This is not just any university: it happens to be my alma mater. Many of the inventors with whom I now regularly interact were my college professors, except now I regard them as the source of our university’s intellectual property. They knew (and many still remember) me as the student prepped with questions that, as with most students, seemed only to indicate how much she did not understand. Fast forward to the present: enter the young patent attorney charged with ensuring these professors’ life’s work and research are legally protected for commercialization geared toward serving the public—a daunting task for even the more experienced patent attorneys. So how does one overcome the first impressions developed from being these professors’ student to convince them that I truly am capable of the quality work product that matches up to that from my more experienced patent attorney colleagues? I am finding the answer lies in two words: quality and confidence. In each communication with an inventor, I strive to confidently provide quality work product on behalf of my client. From my emails, to my tone of voice, to my legal work product, I try never to let a task or communication go by that does not meet my self-imposed standards for quality. This practice I feel helps tremendously in ensuring both my profession and I are highly regarded by those whom I serve. So it seems that while first impressions may last a lifetime, it is also true that confidence and quality can and will save the day.

--Pervin R. Taleyarkhan, Purdue Research Foundation, West Lafayette, IN

 

The Kentucky- Fried Lawyer (The Southern Lawyer)

In the South, we are known for our charming accents and home cooking. In the courtroom, there is usually an array of seersucker suits and bow ties. I often serve as local counsel in my practice and work with lawyers all over the country. While it is generally a very amicable and mutually respected relationship, there have been times where stereotypes about the work ethic in my region of the country can strain the relationship. Sometimes co-counsel mistakenly equates the slow moving wheels of justice with a lack of urgency or attentiveness from my southern colleagues and me. I have found that some have been quick to imagine (and passive aggressively joke) that any unavailability on our end is due to late mornings, lavish lunches, and lemonade-sipping afternoons. Of course, this is not reality because true southern lawyers prefer to sip sweet tea. But all jokes aside, I have found that there is a discrepancy in the desired frequency of communication expected from either region. I have learned that a quick email response and frequent updates on the status of the case—even if just to clarify that there are no updates—is the best way to minimize any negative assumptions and keep both the North and South happy.

--Anne-Marie Mitchell, Stone Pigman Walther Wittmann, LLC, New Orleans, LA

TYL Editorial Board

Karen Clevering, Lindsay Smith, Keith Black, Diana Camosy, Scott Akin, Carolyn Tan, Phillip Long, Namosha Boykin, Raul Chacon, Erin E. Rhinehart, Lisa Kothari, Edward M. O’Brien, Pervin R. Taleyarkhan, and Anne-Marie Mitchell are members of the TYL Editorial Board