After having the luxury of practicing law for over 30 years and looking back on the first few years of practice, there are several things that I have learned that I sure wish I had known as a young lawyer. Many are common sense, many are similar to the golden rule—do unto others as you would have them do unto you—and other similar rules of decency that our parents taught us when we were children growing up. I thought it might be beneficial to share some of these thoughts with you as we continue to promote civility among our profession and find ways to educate and train our young lawyers in the practice.
1. Proper Grammar. I occasionally have an opportunity to correct one of my child’s statements in conversation where the use of grammar is like none other. For example, when someone is telling me how he or she is doing something with another person, it makes my skin crawl when they say “him and I went to the basketball game” or “her and I went to the bars last night.” I listen to their statement and interrupt them before they can take a breath or make any other comment and say “Oh, do you mean he and I” or “Do you mean she and I?” I think they get the message but sometimes I wonder.
2. To Tell You the Truth. I find it remarkable that people will be having a conversation, talking about any number of things and out the clear blue they make a comment “And to tell you the truth, I … .” What always rushes into my mind is the obvious question: “So does that imply that half of what you are telling me is not the truth?” If I am working with young attorneys, quite often I will let them know that they should try to avoid using that phrase in their conversation. They do it subconsciously so I suggest they ask their significant other or roommate that they mention to them if they ever hear them use that phrase in conversation.
3. Learning How to Speak in Front of a Group: I have seen attorneys in meetings or in presentations talk as if they were totally unprepared or without any knowledge of topic they were discussing. I really doubt that they were not properly prepared or that they did not know what they should be talking about, but their ability to convey that to a small, intimate group of people or a large group of people is obviously affected in the presentation. I have recommended to attorneys that they consider attending Toastmasters, which meets throughout the city, to help with their oral presentation skills. I am sure there are other groups that also cater to this skill set and would certainly recommend all attorneys take some time to develop these skills. It is critical for attorneys to be able to exhibit the confidence of knowing what they are talking about in making arguments or presentations to clients, potential clients or a judge in a crowded courtroom.
4. You Don’t Have to Win Every Argument. I remember being a young real estate attorney who was trained by brilliant lawyers. I knew everything and had to be right on all accounts. I recall times when I had to prove to other lawyers that I knew everything about whatever we were discussing and that I had to prevail in every point. That approach is not necessarily in the best interest of a client and sometimes can lead to hard feelings. While it is difficult to determine when one becomes “comfortable in their own skin,” the earlier you have the confidence to know when to back down and when to arduously argue is no small task. The sooner that you gain that confidence, the better off you will be in practicing with your fellow attorneys.
5. Help People When You Can. I told a story at my installation about a friend of mine who called me needing a place to stay for a few days since things were not going well at home with his wife. I suggested he come over for a couple of days to get away from the situation. I counseled him on his dissolution, ultimately assisted him with his settlement agreement and was able to preserve his relationship with his children. When he FINALLY moved out five months later, I knew that I had gained a friend for life and that he would always remember what I did for him. He has always recommended me to anybody with whom he came in contact and always spoke incredibly well of me—much better than I deserve and probably far from the truth. While I had no idea that he would be living with me for five months, it seemed to be the right thing to do at the time. Given the opportunity, take the time to help your friend when the call comes. There will always be time to finish the work but the time to help a friend is always NOW.•
If it is just as easy to be nice as it is to be mean,
Then why don’t attorneys’ kindness be more routine,
A happy face is so easy to portray and display,
So jump all in with smiles, don’t go just halfway.
Our bar would be so much more pleasurable if we all learned how to speak,
The occasional use of bad grammar is something we need to tweak,
And if I hear one more time “To tell you the truth…”
I may just pour a tall glass of gin and hold the vermouth.