Under Analysis . . .

 Tone deaf

Lisa Henderson-Newlin, The Levison Group

As a lawyer, my life is one big argument. From jurisdiction to jury selection, the life of a lawyer is rife with disagreements that can spill over into regular life. Okay, maybe that’s not entirely true but it’s not untrue either. It seems in my life there are at least a few regular arguments, although most are with my husband about what’s for dinner and who took the trash out last (it was me).

As a lawyer it’s our job to deal in arguments. It’s our clay to a sculptor or our Bette Midler song to any aspiring singer. But why does it feel like handling adverse situations isn’t a specialty anymore? It feels like it’s all around us. From quibbling with the waiter over the price of an appetizer to dickering about pennies at a garage sale, society has become far more argumentative and it’s certainly spilled into the legal world.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’ve noticed an increase in combatant behavior just for the sake of it. True, it’s a lawyer’s responsibility to argue about important aspects of the case but it isn’t necessary to argue over the color of paper we use or a font selection. And yet, I see that happening more and more. It’s kind of like the new black. Is it because that type of arguing is necessary for the job, or is it simply because that’s the way we’ve evolved as a culture?

I think I’m fairly adept at handling adverse situations. It’s pretty much my entire job (aside from raiding the candy at the receptionist’s desk when she’s not looking and then blaming it on someone else). I can look at a case and tell if it’s going to be hotly contested or if it’s something we can work out relativity easily. Sadly, a big part of my determination is what attorney is on the other side of the case and what tactics he uses. It seems the lawyers who argue just for the sake of arguing are more difficult to deal with and are far more unreasonable. As a result, it’s harder to get things done and the cases drag out longer than they should. I find the same is true in life. Someone who has a chip on his shoulder and an attitude from the beginning of an interaction is more likely to offend the other party, thereby making it harder to come to a resolution. How someone approaches a problem is a big part of solving the puzzle. The waiter is more likely to remove that cold appetizer from your bill if you approach him respectfully instead of doing so rudely. The same holds true with practicing law.

As a lawyer and advocate, it’s perfectly acceptable to argue over something, but arguing in a rude and disrespectful way is what slows down the wheels of justice. What’s even worse is when those arguments get nasty for no reason. The tone in which we interact with other lawyers should be positive and respectful. I find a negative tone makes it more difficult for everyone. I don’t mind arguing as part of my job. In all honesty, I enjoy it. But I enjoy it when everyone is respectful and courteous. Although we have ethical obligations to our clients, I don’t believe arguing in a derogatory or negative manner is appropriate and it certainly doesn’t do the client any good. Truthfully, I think it does far more harm.

In my professional life and in my personal life, I find that the tone at which someone comes at me with an argument makes all the difference; regardless of the issue. From junior high when my friend Brittney told me “Kristin is so mad at you because <insert stupid reason here> and she’s never going to talk to you again,” to now with “Ms. Henderson, we are going to make your client suffer and do whatever it takes to make that happen,” my reaction is decidedly different than if Britney would have just said “Kristin’s feelings are hurt because <something stupid that totally wouldn’t hurt someone’s feelings>” or if opposing counsel would say “Ms. Henderson, my client is upset and wants to fight this case for the justice she deserves.” Both relay the same message, but one is done in a non-argumentative way and the other is done just like a junior high student. 

For me, it’s all about tone. It’s kind of like a radio station. If you pick the classical station for your ride to work, you’ll probably arrive in a far better mood than you would have had you picked a station with dark bands and brooding music. It’s the same with arguments. As the person taking the first step, it’s up to you to decide if it’s going to be a reasonable and friendly one, or if it’s going to be unreasonable and hostile. It’s up to you. Likewise, how your opponent responds is also up to you. Personally, approaching me with guns a blazing will fuel me to return the fire...with 5 automatic assault rifles. However, on that same issue, approaching me with a smile and meaningful discussion about the case over lunch will have a better result, and not just because there’s buttered rolls. The choice is yours: in life and in law. If you want to be the blunt and brash person who confronts every disagreement with an attitude and a chip on his shoulder, then you have every right to do so. However, beware that many people, people like me, may find that behavior inappropriate and will respond in kind...only it won’t be so kind.

So pick your poison but choose carefully. Honey gets more flies than vinegar, although I’ve never understood this analogy because I’ve never wanted to catch flies.

Either way, I hope you choose being good to each other and treating everyone professionally. You don’t have to be combative to be a good lawyer or to be a good person. The real key to being both of those things is kindness and respect.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to call my junior high friend Kristin who is upset for a totally stupid reason.


Under Analysis is a nationally syndicated column of The Levison Group.  Lisa Henderson-Newlin is a shareholder of the law firm McAnany, Van Cleave, and Phillips.  She’s a contributing writer at NickMom.com and writes a humor website, LisaNewlin.com. Contact Lisa at lhenderson@mvplaw.com or contact Under Analysis by email at comments@levisongroup.com.

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