Tuesday, March 19, 2019
As an appellate attorney, I often find myself serving as both attorney and counselor to trial lawyers. As an appellate attorney at trial, I am trying to make sure error is preserved and that we are right on the law and its presentation to the court. As a counselor, I often find myself trying to calm down the rhetoric and rancor.
While the days of "Rambo litigation" have died down a bit, there is still a strong current of thinking in the law that if you aren't being angry and contentious, you just aren't passionate enough about your case. I have always disagreed. I believe that passion is important, but that you can be passionate without being contentious, and that courtesy, instead, is actually more persuasive. Over time, that belief has proven out, as I hear from judges and justices and juries about how they perceive the bluster in a negative light.
A few months ago, Professor Peter Huang published an article explaining a bit more about (among other things) the economic costs of lawyer hostility and unhappiness. It is an interesting read. Here is the link to the article: https://content.sciendo.com/view/journals/bjals/7/2/article-p425.xml
While the first part of the article largely recounts Huang's (extraordinary) journey through higher education, what caught my attention was his discussion of lawyers, mindfulness, and happiness. Huang was a professor of mathematics and economics before he went to law school and became a law professor, and his insights into the profession are unique.
For instance, Huang notes studies showing that students tend to enter law school focused on intrinsic values, like the desire to do good, help the vulnerable, and improve society in general. By graduation, they have been altered, and tend to focus on extrinsic values relating to class rank, grades, honors, and salary offers. This journey leaves them scarred: one survey of law students showed that one-quarter to one-third of respondents reported frequent binge drinking or misuse of drugs, and/or mental health challenges, while another Yale survey showed that 70% of the law students surveyed suffered from some type of mental health issue.
Worse yet, when they graduate, they often see that their hostility is financially rewarded, and this behavior is reinforced. Some clients seek out "Rambo" lawyers who will be argumentative and antagonistic, thinking such attorneys are the most effective. And the rules of civil and criminal procedure often appear to incentivize and reward that mindset. Thus, Huang reasons, "An economically-minded observer might simply characterize the unhealthiness of law practice and law school as just additional costs of being a lawyer and law student, albeit emotional health, mental health and physical health costs that are hard to perhaps measure, observe, quantify, and verify."
Those costs, while difficult to measure, are simply too high. Lawyers are the most frequently depressed occupational group in the United States. To cope with that depression and anxiety, many lawyers self-medicate with alcohol or drugs. Attorney overdose and suicide rates are very high. This has not only a personal cost, but a professional one as well.
Huang leaves out another category of costs: the perception of our judges and juries. One need practice only a short time to discover that judges negatively view hostility in those who appear before them. Credibility before the court is hard to quantify, but communication theory since at least Aristotle suggests that its loss has a high (and lasting) cost in lawyer effectiveness before our increasingly frustrated courts.
But even without those costs in his calculations, Huang notes that a recent meta-synthesis of several empirical studies revealed that both clients and attorneys tend to value "soft skills" that relate to empathy and integrity more than they do "hard" expertise. Attorneys value the ability to assess deals and propose solutions, the ability to assess and mitigate risks, honoring commitments, delegation to and management of support staff, integrity and trustworthiness, keeping information confidential, punctuality, and treating others with courtesy and respect. Clients, similarly, value lawyers who accurately estimate and clearly explain attorney fees, communicate with clients, are empathetic, listen well, are responsive to clients, are respectful, have strategic problem solving skills, are trustworthy, and who understand client needs. In other words, other lawyers and clients do not value naked aggression as much as they value other skills that are incompatible with that approach.
What, then, can we draw from this? Huang and the resources he cites (as well as personal experience) indicate that the costs of hostile "Rambo" litigation are simply too high to justify any value that might be perceived to lie in such conduct. This attitude and practice does not lead to personal happiness, but rather leads to high personal costs as well as a loss of credibility with the legal community and courts. And all in the name of trying to enhance one "skill" of questionable worth, while eliminating many other soft skills that clients find truly valuable.
You can be a zealous advocate without being a jerk about it. I have always believed it's the right way to practice, and my anecdotal experience is that it is more effective. It's good to know it makes sense empirically, too.
(Image credit: Scene from a December 1883 incident in a Prescott, Arizona courtroom during the trial of Kelsey v. McAteer, source unknown (likely the local Prescott newspaper), wherein the attorneys' fight over the admissibility of an affidavit escalated into a battle with a knife and gun in the courtroom. For more information: https://www.historynet.com/disorder-in-the-court-the-lamentable-occurence.htm).