Born to Argue: Lawyer Dysfunction, Part 2

Much as I would like to believe that only the most socially awkward lawyers would choose to act like the boorish lawyer I made up in Part 1, I know it’s pretty accurate. I’ve heard many lawyers over the years talk about how being argumentative and right are “just the way they are, and it’s not going to change.”

Really?

So you’ve argued incessantly with friends and family since you were a wee child? Law school and law practice hasn’t intensified that trait in the slightest?

African American toddler looking upset, possibly looking aggressiveIf you can see that law has amped up your argumentative nature, then you can also dial that knob from 11 back down to 5, or maybe less, when the situation calls for it.

Pro-tip: Most situations call for 5 or less on the argument volume knob.

Before we can start changing something, we need to become aware that we are doing it. So be your own sociologist: Observe your own behavior for a few days, or a week. Interactions with staff and strangers count, as do your interactions when you’re not at the office.

You might even keep a crib sheet, listing who and when, your own argumentative behavior or lack of it, and what the topic was. If you really must, you can note what the other person did or said.

You might see a pattern that otherwise was invisible. Or notice the triggers of your behavior.

You could also ask friends who really like you for their observations of your argumentativeness. But only if you promise not to argue with what they tell you.

New Information = Power To Change

I know, for example, that when I get physically tired, I get far, far bitchier and argumentative than I like.

Therein lies some of the solution: If you observe a pattern, take yourself out of it.

I avoid difficult conversations in the late afternoon and evenings, for example. I also refuse to talk with anyone except the cats before I’ve had my morning coffee. My family (mostly) knows better than to talk to me, or even look me in the eye, before I’ve had at least half of my ginormous cuppa.

Am I a caricature? Yep. But then, so is the Always Argumentative Attorney.

Rather than seeing life and your job as a zero-sum, right v. wrong endeavor, pick up a different lens. Maybe a wide-angle lens, so you see more of a situation. How do you do that? Try something like these:

  • Rather than instantly supplying the allegedly right answer, ask why someone came to that conclusion. In a neutral tone. Who knows, maybe they have information you don’t.
  • Rather than asking “How could you possibly think that??!!!” complete with aggressive tone implying they’re an idiot, you could say, calmly, “Hmmm, that had never occurred to me. Tell me more about why you think that.” If you hear a flaw in their reasoning, you can point it out. Without loaded, accusatory tones, please.
  • Rather than saying, “That will never work!” try “My concern is that due to this, that, and the other thing, this idea may not work out well at all. What am I missing?”

With that widened perspective, maybe you will start to see a more productive way to solve the whole problem. That is what clients actually want—their problem solved.

Sometimes, the solution to that problem will mean proving that your argument is right. But sometimes, solving their problem will involve seeing more broadly what their conflict is really about, and using your legal toolkit to get them there.

I’m willing to bet many of you are squirming, wanting to ask, “But what if I am totally right, and they are utterly wrong—like a client who wants to do something patently illegal?”

That is when you actually get to dig in your heels and insist you are correct. Break out the champagne!

It’s All in the Delivery

The way you deliver that message is important, though. Experienced in-house lawyers know this, but law firm lawyers and those new to quasi-legal roles may not.

Saying, “There is no way I will ever sign off on that, it’s totally against the law, and I don’t want to go to jail,” is not guaranteed to get the result you want.

Instead, you could use some version of, “I haven’t seen any cases that say your proposed action is anything but an antitrust conspiracy. Those, of course, can put people in jail. But if you know of any other contrary cases, I’d love to hear about them. If not, let’s figure out a way you can do at least some of what you want, without any of us risking jail time.”

picture of wolf's face, with text superimposed: Half of my problems are because of the tone of my voice. Everyone thinks I'm arguing while actually I'm just explaining my point.In all of these alternatives to a right v. wrong mindset, using a neutral, inquiring tone may be the most important change to make. Therapists tell us that dysfunction isn’t so much about what words toxic people use, it’s the tone of their voice.

Even the common phrase “Oh my God” means opposite things, depending on tone. There’s the “OMG!” when someone opens an unexpected, perfect gift. Then there’s “OMG!” when someone watches video of his lover with another man, in bed together.

If you are sure your tone is fine, but some folks are saying differently, use the voice recording app on your phone for an hour while you’re at the office and talking to people. Recording during a meeting is ideal. Have a trusted friend (preferably not a lawyer) listen to it with you and tell you what they hear. Reality checks can be invaluable.

Maybe You’re Not an Asshole

Much of what garners lawyers the “asshole” label isn’t that we are all mean, nasty people. Sure, there are many lawyers who are. But many more lawyers act poorly because they’ve never learned differently.

Many in the profession went straight from college to law school to law practice. The only professional work culture they’ve known is law. If there aren’t good role models for handling conflict well in their group, chances are good they’ll pick up some asshole habits.

Habits, though, can be changed. I hope the tips I’ve given here for the Always Right Attorney can help you, or someone you know.

What lawyer behaviors drive you batnuts? What ones would you like to unlearn? What ones serve you well? Let me know in the comments, or via jalvey@jenniferalvey.com, and I might riff on it in a future post. Or, if you want help reforming, drop me a line.

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