Everyday Ethics—Building a Professional Reputation
The Bencher—July/August 2021
By the Robert M. Spire American Inn of Court
The “Oracle of Omaha,” Warren Buffett, once said, “It takes 20 years to build a reputation and five minutes to ruin it. If you think about that, you’ll do things differently.” A lawyer’s reputation is often the key to his or her success (or failure), and it is built one interaction at a time. The Robert M. Spire American Inn of Court in Omaha, Nebraska, has been meeting virtually this past year. As part of our social hour prior to our programs, the Master of the Bench members have been sharing stories and suggestions for building a strong, positive, professional reputation. Here are the “bricks” for building a reputation as a strong, ethical, professional attorney.
Communication is one of the cornerstones of the legal profession. As a counselor, or an advocate, a lawyer communicates constantly. How you speak is sometimes as important as what you say. As one of our Master of the Bench members explained, “Mean what you say, but don’t say it meanly.” It is possible to be a zealous advocate on behalf of your client without resorting to personal attacks. The fight is never personal; don’t make it so. The Comment to Rule of Professional Responsibility § 3-503.5 advises: “Refraining from abusive or obstreperous conduct is a corollary of the advocate’s right to speak on behalf of clients.” Getting to know your fellow attorneys is a critical part of building your professional reputation. It is much easier to disagree agreeably with someone you know. Participation in the American Inns of Court is a key way to interact with other legal professionals in your community, and Inns colleagues are often the best way to build connections with other attorneys outside the Inns.
Sometimes what is not said is as important as what is. Prior to saying anything, stop and ask: “Is it necessary? Is it true? Does it need to be said now?” This pause for thought is critically important in this age of email and social media. Remember that there is such a thing as too much convenience. Before sending an email or posting something on a social media platform, pick up the phone or arrange a meeting in person.
The Virtual World
Professional courtesy extends to the virtual world of communication as well. It is easy to forget that virtual communication can last forever; you do not want your email to go viral for all the wrong reasons. One of our judicial leaders reminded all of us that the email or social media post sent in anger is normally the one attached to a motion sent to the court. If a communication is not one that would present your case, or you, in the best possible light don’t send or post it.
Professional courtesy is not optional. Assume opposing counsel has the best of intentions. In addition, remember that opposing counsel also has a client and an obligation of zealous advocacy on the client’s behalf. The practice of law has a very large element of reciprocity, and the “war stories” shared this year often included learning, positively or negatively, that “what comes around goes around.” As much as possible, agree to reasonable requests for extensions in discovery if you are a litigator, or requests for changes in wording in a contract that are not important to your client if you are a transactional lawyer.
Even if a request is not one to which you can necessarily agree, discuss it in a respectful way and see if there is a compromise that allows both parties to protect their clients’ best interests. Respond with curiosity and courtesy, rather than a dismissive attitude, and see where it leads. At some point in a case, you’ll need an extension or need to stand firm on some point of negotiation. An attorney who has been agreeable and flexible has a better chance of receiving courtesy in return.
Professional Courtesy Is a Strength, Not a Weakness
However, remember professional courtesy does not mean that an attorney needs to be a doormat. It is possible to maintain a strong position in a courteous way. This can sometimes be done with an explanation (but never an apology). If the other party becomes angry, there is no reason to respond in kind. If nothing else, a “let’s discuss this tomorrow” is often effective. To paraphrase Eleanor Roosevelt, no one can make you feel bad without your consent. This is true of anger as well. Counting to 10 before speaking is a classic for a reason.
Remember Your Manners
Basic courtesy to everyone is also a critical part of building a strong reputation. Thank the bailiff who set your hearing on the judge’s calendar. Learn and use the names of court personnel. Maintaining good relationships with everyone is not only one of the keys to building a strong reputation, it is also crucial to professional success. Many clients believe they want “a shark” and expect their attorneys to be “aggressive,” by which they mean rude. Explain to clients the benefits of professional courtesy to the success of their case. Explain also the obligations of the Rules of Professional Conduct, which state: “In representing a client, a lawyer shall not use means that have no substantial purpose other than to embarrass, delay, or burden a third person….” See Neb. Rule § 3-504.4, “Respect for rights of third persons.”
The “good old days” of attorneys fighting it out in the courtroom and then going out for a meal together aren’t “the old days.” Building relationships and maintaining a reputation for professionalism and ethics is an ongoing project created interaction by interaction. It is also deceptively simple: Be polite, respect the positions of others, say “please” and “thank you,” and don’t lie.
In the blink of an eye, you will have spent a lifetime in the law. What stories will you share along the way? What stories will others share about you? If you ensure your interactions with others are respectful ones, and you maintain your connection with the American Inns of Court and its guiding principles of professionalism, ethics, civility, and excellence, those stories will be only good ones.
The Robert M. Spire American Inn of Court is an Achieving Excellence Platinum Level Inn in Omaha, Nebraska.