Should Lawyers be Polite with Opposing Counsel and Parties?
Of course, the answer to this question is obvious. We should all be polite with all the folks we meet, in every circumstance. Nevertheless, human nature being what it is, we sometimes have lapses in our sense of decorum.
As a lawyer it is highly advantageous to have an appropriate sense of civility. Not only does it benefit the lawyer by polishing his professional reputation, and by easing the transaction, it’s also of great benefit to the lawyer’s client.
When everyone is more relaxed in their approach it eases the exchange of opinions and points of view. As officers of the law, attorneys should strive to be solution generators. Unfortunately, we’ve all heard the jokes involving attorneys creating problems instead of helping to solve them. Lawyers should avoid making the process more tedious, expensive, and emotional, if at all possible. Simple courtesy goes a long way in making this happen.
I recently had an exchange with an opposing party who was not represented by counsel. When we went before the judge in the trial he was somewhat disorganized in his presentation. Nevertheless, I encouraged him to take his time and present all the facts as best he understood them. I could tell the judge appreciated this relaxed approach, and the opposing party felt that he had “been heard”. We both left the hearing with no bitter feelings.
Within a few days, a written decision came from the judge, and it was partially in favor of each party. Since there were details to be worked out beyond what the judge had decided, I called the opposing party. There was no return phone call after my first voicemail. Calling him a second time, I fully intended to leave a voicemail that I would be filing a motion to compel enforcement of the judge’s order, should I not get a return call.
As an attorney with decades of experience, I know how costly it is to force “agreement”, when a more pleasant demeanor could, perhaps, create a less expensive solution more pleasing to all parties. I had no desire to type up and file motions with the court, drive out to the courthouse, have a hearing, irritate the judge with our lack of cooperation, and create hostility and antipathy with the opposing party. Nevertheless, if my second phone call was not returned, I felt I had no choice.
Much to my delight, my adversary answered the phone when I placed that second call. We both agreed that the hearing had been without contention, and he indicated to me that I had been “a perfect gentleman” in allowing his side of the story to be heard, and helping him with the presentation of his exhibits before the court.
Since there were certain details that remained to be worked out, and he had to do some fact-finding before we could do so, I encouraged him to take 7-10 days, as he requested, after which we would talk again. As the judge has already ordered the sale of the asset (our main goal), and the adversary simply wanted to have it independently appraised, there was no harm in honoring his request. He was most pleased, and we agreed that we will talk again within 10 days.
Since this matter is one that has dragged on for a number of years for my client, it was a pleasant surprise to me that we seem headed toward resolution, only a few short months after she retained my services. I’m looking forward to letting my client know we may be able to keep her bill down, achieving a more efficient result through gentlemanly conduct.
Certainly not every lawyer thinks this way. I fully understand the various twists and turns of legal thinking and conduct. However, the legal system should be a way to resolve disputes, not aggravate them. It’s a way to teach people respect for the law and each other, and teach good manners as a way of efficiently advancing polite society.
Of course, this doesn’t always happen–sometimes matters can become contentious between two opposing parties. But it’s always a pleasant surprise when people can work out their differences in a mutually satisfactory (and pleasant) way.