The Importance of Collegiality for Young Lawyers
by Michael E. Gardner
During my first week of law school at the University of Missouri, I attended a luncheon attended by many alumni. One of them told me something I remember to this day: “After you get out of law school and begin practicing law, you will very quickly develop a reputation among the other lawyers in your community. Make sure it is the right reputation—because if it isn’t, it will be very difficult to change it over time.”
Unfortunately, sooner or later, we will all encounter an opposing attorney who seems to believe that being difficult is necessary to effectively represent his or her client. This attitude can manifest itself in many ways: objecting to many or all discovery requests regardless of whether the objections have merit, refusing to consent to basic motions to which there is no rationale for opposition, failing to return phone calls, sending letters with overly harsh language, and so forth. These unprofessional practices damage a lawyer’s reputation and weaken his or her credibility with judges and other attorneys.
Fortunately, most attorneys do not practice law this way. Lawyers new to the practice of law should understand that while they have the obligation to be zealous advocates for their clients, they also have a responsibility to be collegial with opposing counsel. The preamble to the Missouri Rules of Professional Conduct recognizes that an attorney is “an officer of the legal system” who “should demonstrate respect for the legal system and for those who serve it, including judges, other lawyers and public officials.” The Rules also require attorneys to be fair to opposing counsel. See Mo. Rule of Prof. Conduct 4-3.4.
Being overly adversarial is usually not in the best interest of your client. Difficult behavior will sometimes be reciprocated by opposing counsel, which will inevitably result in a waste of time and greater expense to both clients. It is also not the best way to build a practice. Being unnecessarily difficult to opposing counsel will guarantee that you will never receive a referral from that attorney. Of course, a lawyer’s priority in handling a case should be to represent the client (rather than building goodwill with opposing counsel), but obstinate behavior that provides no benefit to the client only serves to alienate a potential referral source.
A young lawyer who makes an effort to be considerate to other attorneys will find the practice of law to be much easier and more enjoyable. In representing a client, you should use a firm but respectful tone in your correspondence. When deposing a witness, refrain from raising your voice. When dealing with difficult attorneys, make it a point to be considerate to them. You will sometimes find that they will change their attitude. Building a good reputation in your community will result in more clients and other professional opportunities.