We are taught that the business of law is competitive. Even before we begin our legal careers, we have to compete. We compete to get into law school, we compete with our friends and classmates for OCI’s, we compete for that second year summer job. Why? So that we can compete with those people hired at our firms for articling and associate positions. We thrive on competition. We have to be better, stronger, and faster than the student beside us.
In our years as young lawyers, we are taught to fight. We may call opposing counsel “my friend” in front of a judge, but there is nothing friendly about opposing counsel. Our task is to obtain the most favourable result for our client, defend our client and win for our client. We spend hours in class learning about win-win negotiations. But our end goal isn’t to find solutions for everyone – it is to win the best deal for our client.
For some of us, this goes against our internal fabric. We all like to win, but I was taught to be better than the rest- not at the expense of the rest. I was taught to build bridges, not burn them. I believe this attitude of build and not burn is an important lesson for today’s lawyers. We are all in this together. Our colleagues quickly become clients, and clients can be the reason we meet or exceed our billable targets. The legal community is small. The way you treat friends, colleagues, associates, and clients very quickly becomes your reputation.
Recently, I was confronted by outside counsel. They wanted to know why they were fired on a transaction. I told them the truth: the other side to the transaction wanted to work with a different firm. Upon naming the other firm, outside counsel responded with “YOU’LL BE SORRY.”
I’m sure outside counsel had reasons, but that very simple statement suggested to me that this was not someone I wanted to work with. His lack of civility and his lack of grace prompted his immediate removal from my referral list. The fact that his firm’s work was good no longer mattered.
The proper response - the civil response- would have been “I’m sorry we were unable to meet your needs. If another opportunity does arise, please let me know.” This response would have landed him future work from me, as well as from the in-house counsel around me.
As lawyers we are always competing, but our humility and our willingness to work with others will put us miles in front of our colleagues who view the law as adversarial. It’s time to change our perspective. There is no cost to civility; rather it pays in dividends.