Chair’s column

Three Suggestions for Rebuffing Weasels

Lawyers have earned a reputation for being nasty, confrontational, and mean-spirited. The public, and a number of lawyers as well, think this reputation to be entirely justified.

I suspect there is hardly a lawyer who has not experienced, let’s call it, an “intense” conversation, in which an opponent descends into disruptive and disrespectful behavior. Actually, can any lawyer, without qualification, say he or she has never once crossed the fine line between acceptable and unacceptable advocacy. A momentary, rare lapse, however, differs markedly from habitual offenders.

Usually, lawyers with sharp tongues, short-tempers, or hostile demeanors earn well-deserved negative reputations in their local legal community. Not that they care one bit. And, you won’t get an apology for their temper tantrums, at least not a sincere one.

Let’s call lawyers who act this way “weasels,” after the Least Weasel, a dangerous predator which is cunning as well as fierce in its efforts to get prey. Weasels enjoy creating tension and don’t care if others get upset, especially their opponent or their opponent’s client. They take pride in bullying, considering it an acceptable form of zealous advocacy. They prefer discourtesy to decency, conflict to cooperation, antagonism to accord.

There are many ways to respond to weasels. Space permits presenting just three.

Remain professional

Of primary concern is not how we cooperate with each other, but how we treat each other when we do not cooperate. If you happen to cross paths with a weasel, the one thing you must do is remain calm. That is what professionalism calls for and a professional does. React emotionally and the weasel wins.

I know it is easy to say the abuse should be endured with restraint and altogether another matter to maintain a composed demeanor, especially when you are burning mad inside. Sure it is difficult to resist barking back, but muzzle yourself. By facing the situation with maturity (something weasels lack), by preserving your integrity (again something weasels lack), you deny weasels the satisfaction of upsetting you. In addition, you think clearer when you are calm.

Just because weasels abandon professionalism is no excuse for your joining their herd. Weasels want nothing more than for you to crawl under slimy rocks with them. Judges are less inclined to assess blame when both sides behave unruly.

Respond with kindness, not in kind

Take the high ground; kill weasels with kindness. In following this advice, you stay a step removed from their game and undermine the ugly dynamic weasels try to create. Give weasels wide berth, and be as nice to them as possible. Also, a little humor can ease a tense situation.

Showing kindness is not a form of weakness, but an assertion of self-respect which is something sorely lacking in weasels. Only the most insensitive weasels keep their guard up in the face of overt kindness. I am not saying kindness necessarily will ease the conflict, but it might defuse things enough to allow civil conversation.

Seek help and support

While your ego may want to go it alone, the better approach is to find an ally to work things through with you. Get different perspectives on how-to or how-not-to proceed, especially when you are upset. This can be an eye-opener, a mouth-closer, or both. It also can restore your confidence and peace of mind. Even those experienced in parrying with weasels do better talking things over with a trusted colleague.

Maybe the best advice on the subject comes from the grandmother of sportswriter Grantland Rice who warned him to “never get into an argument about cesspools with an expert.”

Rehearing: “When all you own is a hammer, every problem starts looking like a nail.”

—Abraham Maslow, psychologist.

Justice Hyman’s article first appeared in the October 2016 issue of the CBA Record and is reprinted by permission.

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October 2016Volume 47Number 3PDF icon PDF version (for best printing)