Christine Doucet – August 2018
I was wrapping up an initial consult with a new client, having identified the relevant issues and provided some preliminary advice, when I asked the client if he had any questions for me. He paused, stared me in the eye, and said, “Are you a pit bull?”
I turned the question on him. “Is that what you are looking for in a lawyer?”
He replied, “Well yes, it’s going to be a fight and I want to make sure you’re up for it.”
This is not the first time I’ve been asked such a question. Although the terminology fluctuates between “shark” and “pit bull”, the sentiment is the same. These clients see their legal issue as a battlefield and the lawyer as the warrior who will aggressively and tirelessly fight for their interests, even if that means drawing blood.
My response to the shark/pit bull question is always some variation of the following message, “No. I am not a pit bull. I am not a shark. I look at ways to fix problems, not fight about them.”
Most lawyers I have encountered over my 16 years of practice are competent and courteous. Unfortunately, our profession does have its share of sharks and pit bulls – lawyers who have chosen to practice in the manner I describe above. When I encounter one of these lawyers, it causes me to reflect on the importance of civility in the legal profession.
In Nova Scotia, we are required by our Code of Professional Conduct to be “courteous and civil and act in good faith” towards not only the court but all people with whom we have dealings. This means our clients, other lawyers, our staff, court staff, and even the opposing party. Wise scholars have opined on the reasons for this rule. Here are some reasons I think it’s so important.
Use of a Client’s Financial Resources
The cost of access to legal services continues to rise, and clients do not have unlimited financial resources. They pay us for the minutes and hours we spend working to resolve their legal problems. Every step we take on a file should be the best possible use of our time. In my view, that time is best spent analyzing the problem with our client and coming up with a range of options for resolution. Equally important is being able to listen to the other party or his or her lawyer, in order to understand which options for resolution will meet his or her interests too.
Arguing about positions is easy. (My children are great at it.) Finding solutions that everyone can live with is the tough part. I believe that’s what clients really need and why they hire us.
Physical and Psychological Health of Lawyers
I recently attended the National Family Law conference in Vancouver and participated in a session entitled, “Crazy for Family Law: How the Practice of Family Law Affects the Health of Lawyers and What We Can Do About It.” Two family law practitioners shared their research and experiences of the physical and psychological health strains of practicing family law. They made the point loud and clear that negative work environments and work practices contribute to strains on lawyers’ health.
I can recall occasions where I have had a physical reaction while dealing with certain lawyers – my blood pounds in my ears and my heart rate increases. Those are not ideal conditions to do good work. In fact, on occasion, I admit it has brought out the worst in me.
Directing a pit bull response to a pit bull lawyer invariable turns up the heat on a file, and not in a good way. It usually makes resolution less likely and increases time and expense, not to mention stress. As George Bernard Shaw so eloquently wrote, “I learned long ago, never to wrestle with a pig. You get dirty, and besides, the pig likes it.”
We can only control our own behavior and not that of others. Treating other lawyers with kindness and respect unfortunately does not guarantee that we receive the same treatment from them. But it won’t make things worse.
Protecting Ongoing Relationships
As lawyers, our approach to representing an individual client extends beyond that particular case. Although we will eventually resolve each matter and close each file, we will likely have many, many more dealings with the other lawyer involved in the case. If we were a royal pain to deal with on the last file, you can bet that lawyer will not be eager to sit down and work things out on the next one. In fact, they may be inclined to steer their client directly to the courthouse door to let a judge figure it out.
Not only do our actions as lawyers affect our future relationships with other lawyers, but they can impact our clients’ relationships with the other party or parties involved. This is especially important in family law and estate matters, where the clients’ relationship with the other party often does not end when we close our file.
The next time a client asks about my qualifications to act as shark or pit bull, I will share this quote by a wise scholar, California litigator Matthew A. Hodel: “My thesis is that the truly successful lawyer finds a good heart more useful than sharp fangs.”