Retract Your Fangs, Lawyers

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Most lawyers take pride in zealous advocacy on behalf of their clients. Zealousness, however, should not be confused with what might be termed the "cobra approach": churning the ground, striking out indiscriminately, and seeking to inflict the maximum amount of damage.

The effort to win, made more intense by economic pressure, can cause problems for any lawyer. In the practice of law, we should never forget that we are dealing with human lives. The law cannot be a profession unless we maintain professionalism and deal with others as we would want to be dealt with.

That fact is recognized in the Rules of Professional Conduct. The commentary on Rule 1.3 (diligence) states that, while lawyers should act with "commitment and dedication to the interests of the client and with zeal in advocacy upon the client's behalf … [t]he lawyer's duty to act with reasonable diligence does not require the use of offensive tactics or preclude the treating of all persons involved in the legal process with courtesy and respect."

Indeed, I have referenced in previous columns what has been called the "civility movement" in the legal profession, with those advocating it calling for the Rodney King approach to legal practice: "Can't we all just get along?"

The attorneys who serve their clients best are problem-solvers, not cobras. The real concern is that a client's interests - whether in a family law dispute or billion-dollar litigation - is always best served by reasonable, rational legal counsel. Revenge and other negative emotions have no place in legal counsel.

Our current situation in Washington, D.C., should serve as ample evidence that unreasonable aggressiveness in pursuing a fixed agenda, regardless of the human or financial consequences, is inevitably disastrous.

Of course, lawyers are no different from anyone else in how their basic human emotions work, but simple self-interest should dictate that being rude and obnoxious to legal adversaries is self-defeating. Do we truly believe that such conduct will win us points or improve our client's position?

On the contrary, such behavior often merely entrenches the opposition further. Any lawyer can be a zealous advocate of a client's interests and still do so with what the American Bar Association calls "courtesy and respect."

Consider client relations in the business world. Clients, like all people, like to buy from people they like. Doctors receive training about developing a "bedside manner" and treating patients with "compassionate care."

Yet law schools don't teach lawyers how to interact with clients or learn what is most important to them. The attorney is supposed to order; the client, obey. The result may be unpaid bills and disciplinary claims against an obnoxious or unreasonable lawyer.

Remember, too, that responding to a disciplinary complaint, whether made by a client or opposing counsel, is not a cost that a law firm or lawyer can pass on. Dealing with the motions and sanctions involved in a disciplinary complaint directly and negatively affects the lawyer's bottom line. That's all the more reason to reject the cobra approach.

In the drive to prevail in every little battle, a lawyer's effort is counterproductive when it's hurtful to those concerned.

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