There was once a lawyer who had a habit of starting sentences with, “I hope this doesn’t offend you, but ….”
And invariably, the next words out of his mouth were offensive.
Sometimes he’d mix it up by saying “I hope you don’t take this personally …” or “I probably shouldn’t say this, but ….” The result was usually the same. Whoever he was talking with – a client, a colleague, a complete stranger – would roll their eyes, chuckle nervously or just stand there blankly, not knowing how to respond.
On occasion, they would take the bait and reply heatedly. Then it was off to the races. This was what he secretly hoped for. He liked nothing better than a good, juicy argument – especially pointless ones that he had initiated.
In a sense, he won simply by provoking a response. After all, hadn’t he warned them up front not to be offended? Hadn’t he cautioned them against taking it personally? Now look at them getting all worked up. People were so sensitive these days.
He liked to think of himself as unfiltered.
Others just thought he was a jerk.
Our Words Matter
It should be said, however, that his clients seemed to appreciate his unvarnished style. That’s why they hired him in the first place. He didn’t pull punches. He told it like it was. He would take the fight to the other side.
And so they loved it when he would call the judge an idiot or opposing counsel inept. It reinforced their belief that they were right and everyone else was wrong.
“What a joke,” he’d tell his clients, referring to another lawyer, a court clerk, a mediator, whomever. “We’ll teach them a thing or two.”
Because even though he saw himself as thick-skinned, in truth he took offense easily. He kept a mental tally of perceived slights and professional grudges. The list grew longer each day.
Some Words Can Be Forgiven, Not Forgotten
But it’s not easy being the roughest, toughest lawyer on the block. You can’t ever let your guard down. One small act of professional courtesy or compromise, and watch out.
Just like that, your reputation as an unyielding, take-no-prisoners, scorched-earth legal warrior can come tumbling down. Next thing you know, you are just like every other lawyer who plays respectfully and seeks civility and reconciliation over conflict.
And there’s an even bigger problem. You’ve got to constantly assess how far you can go without crossing the line. There is always the risk of rubbing someone the wrong way. And it can be a real downer if that “someone” reports you to the State Bar.
Which is what happened to this straight-talking attorney. Actually, multiple “someones” reported him. To his chagrin, the bar seemed unimpressed by his blustering attempt to blame his troubles on crazy, ungrateful clients.
“If you want me to be completely honest,” he told the bar, suggesting that up until then he had been somewhat less than that. “My only mistake was wanting to help this person.”
And while he may have believed that to be true, it did not stop the bar from disciplining him.
Be Impeccable with Your Word
“Speak with integrity,” says Don Miguel Ruiz in The Four Agreements. “Use the power of your word in the direction of truth and love.”
Daily we are bombarded with words, words and more words. Trapped in the downpour, we can lose sight of their power.
But words are much more than sounds produced by air in the larynx. They can inflict great harm. They can demean and discourage. They can damage our souls.
But words also have the power to uplift and inspire us. They can bring us together. They can make us better.
Great lawyers know how to speak hard truths in a soft tone. They can communicate cold facts in a warm way. What comes out of our mouths is always a choice. For an awesome Law Life, please choose wisely.
Jay Reeves practiced law in North Carolina and South Carolina and is author of The Most Powerful Attorney in the World. He runs Your Law Life LLC, which helps lawyers and firms improve their well-being and create saner, more successful law lives. He is available for talks, presentations and confidential consultations.